Strategic planning to beat fires

April 30, 2008

Ben Potgieter is Sappi's district forest manager for Richmond, Harding and Umkomaas areas in the KZN Midlands. However in the wake of last year's devastating fires and on account of his extensive experience in forestry, Ben has been seconded to the hot seat of fire risk manager for the whole of KZN. His counterpart in Mpumalanga is Chris Swanepoel.

Sappi prepares for fire Sappi's Ben Potgieter inspects a burnt tree

Left and right: Ben Potgieter inspects a tree that was scorched in a fire and is now healing itself.


One wall of Ben's office in a converted farmhouse on Sappi's Richmond plantation is covered in a detailed map of the plantations under his control with tree species, fuel loads, high risk areas, physical features, natural barriers and access roads clearly shown. This map is just one of the tools that Ben uses to plan strategically for the upcoming fire season at plantation level.

Ben has introduced a comprehensive fire season preparation process that started in January and continues right through the year. It is based on detailed fire risk assessments by foresters at compartment level, identification of high risk areas (both in terms of high fire risks and the level of potential losses in the event of a fire), meticulous planning, implementation and monitoring.

A risk rating system has been developed that takes into account the salvage potential and financial risk of each compartment in the event of a fire. For example a fire in 2–4 year-old gum and 3–12 year-old pine would result in 100% loss as there is a nil salvage potential and high financial loss (money already spent on those trees and re-establishment costs), so these compartments would score maximum points. This score is then multiplied by the fuel load rating in the compartment to achieve a risk rating.

Using this information Ben can identify the high risk blocks, note the likely direction of a fire, and concentrate the resources at his disposal to reduce the risk. A key weapon in this war is the creation of low fuel load zones which, strategically located, can serve to narrow down and slow a future fire to a point where it can do minimal damage and/or be stopped. Strategic planting of wattle can also serve to slow down a big fire, as well-maintained wattle compartments don't burn as readily as pine or eucalyptus.

"Fuel load management is the cheapest insurance that the timber industry can have," maintains Ben. "I would feel better investing in fuel load reduction than in very expensive fire fighting equipment."

Fuel load reduction, he says, is an ongoing process. It starts at harvesting and is integrated into all forestry activities. There are a number of methods of reducing fuel loads – it's where, when and how you apply them that determine how effective they are. It will take seven years to make a major impact on fuel load levels in a plantation, said Ben.

The standard methods of post harvest fuel load reduction include burning the slash or spreading it evenly across the compartment mechanically or by hand. Chopper rolling is another option sometimes used by Sappi, and mulching is something that is being seriously considered for the future.

"Mulching is the biggest opportunity we have in South Africa for reducing fuel loads. It's expensive but I believe it is a good investment. Sappi has been doing mulching trials on a small scale," said Ben.

The benefits of keeping compartments clean by regular weeding are obvious, both in terms of growth of the trees and reduction of fire risk.

Coppice reduction in Eucalyptus results in a dangerously high fuel loads if left in-field. Removing these for use as dropper poles, charcoal, biofuel or firewood is a viable option. Another mid-rotation crop that serves to reduce fuel loads on Sappi plantations is the collection of leaves and debris from E. smithii compartments by a eucalyptus oil company.

Grazing livestock in open areas and even between growing trees can be effective if properly controlled. Periodical prescribed burning and weeding of open areas is essential.

The curved balls that nature throws at foresters often result in higher than normal fuel loads building up. For instance heavy snowfalls experienced in some parts of the Richmond plantation resulted in broken branches and crowns which increased the loads in those compartments. This is where species selection can be crucial.

There are so many variables in the war against fire, and for someone like Ben, it's all about where you focus your resources.

It goes without saying that burning firebreaks, maintaining plantation access roads and on-the-ground preparedness are essential aspects of Sappi's pre-fire season routine. This includes training and equipping of foresters, contractors and emergency fire fighting teams.

Sappi is also heavily involved with other forestry corporates in supporting and funding the Fire Protection Associations to ensure that they are ready for the fire season.

"Last year in Richmond we had some big successes in stopping fires. Everybody working together in a crisis makes a big difference," said Ben.

Published in March/April 2008

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