Richmond FPA not beating about the bush

December 31, 2009

The 2009 fire season in the summer rainfall areas of South Africa was a relatively easy one, compared to the devastating wildfires of 2007 and 2008. This afforded those managers, foresters and contractors involved in preventing and fighting forest fires with a bit of breathing space to reflect on the lessons learnt from the past and how best to prepare and organise themselves for the wildfires that inevitably lie ahead.

Richmond FPA Terry Decker tracks fire fighting vehicles
Terry Tedder (left) and Ben Potgieter of Sappi discuss fire prevention strategies. Terry Decker keeps track of fire fighting vehicles.

 

One of the key components in the country's fire prevention strategy is to promote the establishment of local fire protection associations in which landowners collaborate to provide weather monitoring and surveillance services, provide assistance in mobilising fire fighting resources and co-ordinate fire fighting operations when fires get away. FPAs also play a key role in raising awareness of the danger of fires and reminding landowners and land managers of their legal obligations regarding fire prevention and response.

A group of corporate timber growers and private farmers from the Richmond area of KwaZulu-Natal have taken giant strides in organising themselves to protect their land against fire. These landowners have joined forces to set up the Richmond Fire Protection Association which manages a highly organised operations centre providing 24-hour/365-days-a-year service to members.

"We can't afford to lose one more stick of timber," is a common refrain heard in industry circles in South Africa these days. News of the closure of the Usutu pulp mill in neighbouring Swaziland, blamed in part on the runaway fires that devastated the feeder plantations over the past two seasons, serves to underline the point.

The corporate growers in particular mean business, and they are prepared to dip into their pockets to support the establishment of FPAs which are widely believed to be a key weapon in the fight against wildfires. It is their support that has played a crucial role in the establishment of several FPAs around the country, including the Richmond FPA.

The Richmond municipality is situated in a fertile timber, sugar and citrus farming region between Pietermaritzburg and Ixopo in the KZN midlands. It covers a total area of 116 000 ha.

Members of the Richmond farming community got together in the mid-1990s in an effort to form an FPA, but it never really got off the ground. Then again in 2004, another attempt was made. Once again a lack of finances appears to have been the main obstacle.

In 2007, efforts to establish an FPA were renewed. Ben Potgieter, who is responsible for fire prevention throughout KZN for Sappi, was elected chairman of a committee charged with the task of getting an FPA up and running. After a lengthy process of preparing a business plan and comprehensive risk assessments for the whole area, the Richmond FPA was finally registered in April 2008.

Terry Tedder, who grew up in the area and has years of experience as a silviculture and fire fighting contractor with Sappi, was appointed full-time Fire Protection Officer. This makes Richmond only one of four FPAs in KZN with a full-time FPO.

The process of signing up landowners to the FPA began in earnest. With no funding forthcoming from government, the membership fees of landowners are the lifeblood of the FPA. Terry said that during their first year in operation, it was mainly the support provided by the corporate timber growers, namely Sappi, Mondi, NCT and Masonite, that kept the Richmond FPA going.

The sugar cane growers were harder to recruit than the timber farmers because they tend to burn cane more frequently and initially they were not keen to submit to burning regulations imposed by an FPA.

However, according to Terry the FPA's effectiveness in co-ordinating the extinguishing of a few fires that got away has helped to persuade them of the benefits and they are now joining readily. "Generally we have full support from the cane industry now," he said.

As at November 2009, the Richmond FPA has 138 members, including corporate growers and private farmers who together own a little more than half of the total land area in the Richmond municipality. The membership includes 32 landowners from the neighbouring Mkambatini area who have joined up with the association. Efforts are being made to formally incorporate this area, which comprises 80 000 ha, into the Richmond FPAs jurisdiction, but crucially, their inclusion brings in more finances and more fire fighting resources.

The disappointing thing is that none of the authorities controlling state land, which includes the Richmond Municipality and the Ingonyama Trust which controls communal or tribal land, have joined the FPA. However, on-going discussions between the FPA and these authorities is continuing in an effort to gain their support. "The more members we have belonging to the FPA, the cheaper it is for everybody, and the more resources we have to fight fires," reasons Terry.

Forest fires know no boundaries
The problem is that fires don't care about boundaries, so the FPA has to monitor fires that start on non-members' land because they may cross into timberland and become huge runaway fires. In many cases, the FPA members will help extinguish fires on land belonging to non-members, including government land, to prevent them from spreading, but the landowner is not contributing to that cost. If the FPA calls on the government fire protection agency Working on Fire to assist with a fire, the landowner has to pay for their services.

Ben Potgieter told me that Sappi has burned extensive firebreaks on neighbouring tribal trust land at their own expense in a bid to create strategic buffers to protect their plantations.

"The FPA is not a fire brigade," commented Ben. "We will monitor a fire on a non-member's land and inform the authorities, and will put it out if it looks threatening. The district office supplies a land cruiser and a fire tender, and we will work closely with them."

The FPA has no fire fighting equipment of its own, except Terry's bakkie sakkie. Their job is to mobilise members' resources in the event of a fire. Members' fire fighting equipment available in the Richmond FPA area includes 66 bakkie sakkies, 10 x 200 litre and 12 x 4 000 litre fire tenders and 151 tractor-trailers.

The Richmond FPA command centre has been set up in a farmhouse on top of a hill on Sappi's Riverdale plantation. It's an ideal spot because from this point you can see for miles in all directions, and the radio communications are excellent. The centre also houses the Firehawk operation which provides 24-hour/365 monitoring services via six cameras which cover almost the entire Richmond area. Ben also has an ops centre in the house from where he can assist Terry if necessary, and also monitor Sappi plantations across the entire province.

The tool that has made a huge difference in fire fighting is Google Earth, which both Terry and Ben use extensively. They have overlaid detailed information such as the names and contact numbers of every landowner, and the type of crop on the Google Earth images. Unfortunately it's not live, so they have to work in conjunction with the Firehawk cameras to pinpoint a fire. The Google Earth images provide a perspective of the entire region and facilitate strategic risk assessment, planning and fire fighting.

Ben told me that every fire fighting vehicle deployed in Sappi's plantations across the province is equipped with a tracking device so he can literally direct individual vehicles to the best position to attack a runaway fire. If the driver is taking the wrong plantation road, he can literally see it happening in real time and re-direct him.

The Richmond FPA is a member of the umbrella KZN Fire Protection Association based at Shafton near Howick, from where aerial fire fighting support can be called up if necessary.

The FPA has succeeded in raising awareness about the danger of fires in the Richmond area, and their short, medium and long-term weather forecasting has made a difference to farmers, especially cane growers who ideally want to burn and get their cane to the mill on the same day.

The FPA produces a monthly newsletter which provides members with updates on weather conditions, burning regulations, firebreaks etc. The regular communication not only promotes awareness, but it also reminds landowners and land managers of their legal obligations regarding fire prevention. Perhaps most importantly Terry is actively promoting co-operation and teamwork among FPA members that enables them to respond to fires quickly and extinguish them effectively.

The Richmond FPA recorded 184 fires during the 2009 fire season, with close to 100 ha burnt in total. Only 5 ha of that was forestry. Compare that with the 2008 season when 500 ha of timber was burnt.

According to Terry, there are many advantages of belonging to an FPA, including: FPA rules and regulations are enforceable in the FPA area and protect members from the actions of non-members.The Fire Protection Officer is empowered by law to enforce Act 101 and FPA rules.The FPA provides advice and assistance to members when and where needed.It provides notification of predicted weather and issues fire danger warnings.It assists to reduce the number of runaway fires through awareness campaigns.There is no presumption of negligence in civil claims if you abide by the rules of the FPA.The FPA assists in neighbour disputes over firebreak conformance.

"Our biggest challenge is to sign up new members, and to persuade Working on Fire to join us in this partnership – and our biggest constraint is finance," concluded Terry. Visit www.richmondfpa.co.za for more information.

Published in November/December 2009

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