Taking steps to reduce wildfire damage

April 30, 2009

The South African Forest industry lost a major portion of their planted area during the past five years. So much so, that any further losses could have catastrophic consequences for the entire industry. Komatiland Forests (KLF) is no exception, and a huge effort is under way to prevent future disasters.

by Ben Bothma, KLF (photos courtesy of Ben Bothma)

Raindance system Chopper reducing wildfire

The Raindance system drops charged pellets onto the forest floor from a chopper.


The ignition pellets dropped by the chopper ignote a few seconds after landing on the ground.The company's efforts in reducing fire risk are focused on four key areas.
KLF planned fire Same compartment burnt before
When burnt under ideal conditions, the planned fire is easily controlled while doing no damage to the trees.
The same compartment that was burnt in December. There is little left to sustain a wild fire.

 Fire awareness programme

KLF launched an awareness programme in partnership with York Timbers and the Lowveld Fire Protection Association, using radio, newspapers, and visual aids to educate the neighbouring communities and schools about the danger of fires.

The campaign, known as 'Mlilo Kills', was launched in May 2008 during a fire awareness day in Nelspruit. The old 'bokkie' sign was revamped to show a young, positive and energetic bokkie equipped with a fire hose and a very friendly smile. This icon gave the campaign a face with which the public can easily associate. The new 'bokkie' fights back and is no longer a victim of wild fires.

KLF made a vehicle available for this campaign, which is specially branded to attract attention and is fitted with a PA system as many schools don't have these facilities. During visits to schools and communities the instructor shared personal experiences about fires, teaching the individuals about the dangers of fires, what they should do in a fire situation, and encouraged people to remember relevant emergency numbers, especially the 0860 NO FIRE number. Our vision is to achieve a real reduction in wildfire damage in Southern African forestry regions and beyond within the next few years. The steps that we've already taken at KLF indicate that this vision is definitely achievable.

A competition was run where pupils could tell what they learnt about fires by making their own posters. The children also joined in singing the MLILO fire jingle.

The campaign has been a huge success. The Mlilo committee received a total of 11 000 entries for the school learners competition, and it was a hefty task to select the winners in the different categories. The Fire jingle was heard over four different radio stations during fire season, visual advertising in the form of newspaper adverts, flyers and posters were placed and distributed and Mlilo attend a variety of events to communicate the message.

The 2009 campaign is being tackled with more drive and some new ideas!

If you wish to join the campaign as a supporter, please contact Nerien at info@lefpa.co.za

Fuel load reduction

Much more prescribed burning will be done from 2009 onwards in order to reduce the fuel loads under pine trees.

KLF embarked on a programme using aerial ignition methods to ignite the fuel on the ground beneath the trees. This system proved to be a gigantic success and we burn up to 800 ha per day. Unfortunately our area has been blessed with a lot of rain over the last couple of months – which means we could not burnt as often as we wanted to. As at the end of March we had burnt 3 800 ha by aerial ignition and 4 000 ha by manual ignition.


A renewed effort is being put in place to do much more fire related training at the KLF training facility at Platorand, but also with private organisations like WoF who bring in training experts from America on an annual basis.

Basic training is presented to all KLF employees, from labour level up to head office in Pretoria, including admin personnel.

Numerous people were sent on ICS courses presented by Working on Fire this year, and more will be sent next year.

Fire risk analysis

The implementation of a scientific Fire Hazard Rating programme in Komatiland plantations has made it possible to introduce a far better and more cost-effective fire protection and fuel reduction programme, fully integrating aspects such as conservation requirements, optimum riparian zone management and addressing urban interface programmes.

How has this been achieved? Basically each and every compartment is evaluated by considering wildfire and prescribed fire application history, silvicultural treatments (e.g. pruning and thinning applied), age of trees, species, vegetation on the ground and many other related factors. Using the outcome of weighted fire prediction behaviour results, each compartment receives a Fire Hazard Rating value for the present and predicted future status, which is then further adjusted for fixed fire hazards, and then classified accordingly, and mapped.

For the first time fire hazard can be classified on a compartment by compartment basis over a five-year period, which will make the decision-making of the fire protection plan so much more meaningful and fully flexible. Integrated fire protection plans have now incorporated effective strategically-placed firebreaks and buffer zones throughout the plantation, placed where most urgently required and not necessarily on the external plantation boundaries. Plans are made even more effective by reducing the internal plantation areas at risk by means of continuous internal firebreak systems, and the incorporation of landscape features such as public roads, mountain ranges and rivers.

These actions have reduced the potential for wildfire damage significantly, and in a cost-effective way. Not only has this new approach to fire protection resulted in substantial fire hazard reductions, but fire protection expenditure has not increased as one would expect. These costs were in fact significantly reduced in some plantation units.

The next step will be to involve all neighbours (big and small) in an effort to join up the major buffer zones throughout a geographic region. This is the ultimate goal of the Integrated Fire Management plans being developed and applied.

Published in March/April 2009

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