LEFPA prepares for a tough season

April 30, 2011

A high level of co-operation between different landowners and government fire-fighting agencies is the key to preventing devastating wildfires, such as those that were responsible for destroying large tracts of forestry land in South Africa in 2007 and 2008. Key roleplayers in this effort are the fire protection associations that provide a platform for all the different stakeholders to pool their resources and work together.

LEFPA burning fire breaks

LEFPA's wage-incentive team assists a member to
burn fire breaks.

 

The Lowveld and Escarpment Fire Protection Association (LEFPA), registered in 2004 in terms of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, is one of the biggest FPAs in the country. LEFPA's paid-up members own 91 000 ha, and its area of jurisdiction covers a total land area of 1,8 million ha. It includes Lydenberg, Sabie, Graskop, Hazyview, Bushbuckridge, Komatipoort, Hectorspruit, Malalane, Nelspruit, White River, Barberton, Lows Creek and part of Badplaas.

All the large corporate growers as well as commercial farmers, municipalities and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Board, are members. However, as is the case in many other FPAs around the country, the forestry companies play a leading role in LEFPA, contributing the bulk of the funding and strategic management input.

LEFPA's office is situated in downtown Nelspruit. It has a full-time, highly motivated staff headed up by Fire Manager Andre Scheepers and administrator Nerien van Heerden. The current chairman is Sappi's silviculture development manager for the Lowveld, Duncan Ballantyne.

This team is busy throughout the year and there's never a dull moment. Outside of fire season the LEFPA team is busy mobilising its membership and resources in preparation for the fire season which runs from 1 June through to 31 October, weather permitting. It runs an ambitious community awareness campaign dubbed 'Mlilo', and presents fire training courses, including basic firefighting and fire boss training.

LEFPA has at its disposal two Working on Fire ground teams which provide support during pre-season firebreak burns and are deployed to fight fires wherever and whenever they occur. In addition, LEFPA manages a wage incentive team of 24 people which provides valuable assistance to landowners preparing firebreaks, especially the smaller members who don't have sufficient labour to safeguard their pre-season burning.

Aerial support, which includes 13 aircraft, is supplied by LEFPA and Working on Fire, through the Mpumalanga Umbrella FPA.

Throughout the year, the FPA provides detailed weather forecasting, informs members of their legal responsibilities, issues burning permits and assists with fire incident investigations.

An extensive and ever expanding camera network watches over large tracts of land under LEFPA's jurisdiction 24/7, operated by EV Solutions. These cameras are monitored day and night, and whenever and wherever the first signs of smoke are detected, a whole chain of actions is set in motion designed to identify the source, calculate the risk and mount an immediate and appropriate response.

On red and orange days, this involves swift and drastic action to douse the fire with all means possible, including fixed wing bombers and choppers, no matter where it is.

Prospects for the coming fire season are uncertain as good rains throughout the summer have contributed to a build-up of the fuel load.

"The fuel loads are high and we are expecting a bad fire season," commented Nerien, "but we are getting more organised with every year that goes by and so we are as ready as we can be."

Duncan Ballantyne said that there was a very good working relationship between all the timber growers, who are well represented on the LEFPA Exco. Members are quick to assist each other when fires break out on neighbouring properties because they all know that fires can spread quickly.

He said that the corporate growers have set up an Mpumalanga Forestry Wildfire Committee to try and improve inter-company co-operation at a regional landscape level in a bid to reduce fire risk and improve fire-fighting capability.

"We are looking at camera detection, fuel load management, the development of integrated buffer zones and technical cooperation issues," said Duncan.

He believes that this is a strategy that could significantly reduce the fire risk for the whole Mpumalanga region.

Published in April 2011

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