The evolution of fire risk analysis

April 30, 2010

By analysing the risks and identifying the gaps in your organisation's preparedness, you could save yourself a lot of pain, expense and loss of revenue by reducing the number and severity of wildfires in your plantations. The forestry industry of South Africa is gripped in a dynamic world of exciting challenges. As proof of this statement reference, consider the debates surrounding climate change, economic pressures, land claims and restitution, HIV and Aids, staff turnover, liberal management styles and many more.

Analysing risks in fires

Blue fuel, green fuel, yellow fuel, orange fuel and red fuel.


Within this often unpredictable environment, fire managers have to protect South Africa's commercial fibre resource against the effect of veldfires. It is, therefore, reasonable to imply that the optimal survival and prosperity of the industry relies on synergy across various disciplines and involves all the role players in forestry. Fire management is one of the disciplines that has developed into a science that needs to be employed to ensure protection of plantation assets.

'Fire Risk Analysis'
During the past decade, the phrase 'Fire Risk Analysis' has become a common expression among fire managers in South Africa. In support of this phrase, terms like 'Integrated Fire Management', 'Fuel Load Management', Hazard Classification', 'Vulnerability', and lately 'Gap Analyses' are often used. Ironically, more afforested area than ever before has burned down since the invention of these terms, which creates the impression that some fire managers either talk the talk but can't walk the walk, or that people don't know what these terms mean. It is, therefore, a big concern to note that there are numerous fire managers who still practice fire management the way it was done 20 years ago, while claiming that these concepts are part of their fire management strategies.

In this article, a few of these concepts are explained, which might assist managers to rethink their strategic and tactical fire management notes.

Initially, fire management consisted of basic protection activities such as preparing tracer belts, burning fire belts, harvesting slash and riparian zones, maintaining infrastructure like roads and water points, detecting fires and suppressing fires with suitable equipment and competent labour. These activities still remain the foundation of fire management, but do not compensate for the dynamics within today's forestry environment.

Among other things, escalating operational costs, an experience drain and a smaller human resource component on plantations has resulted in fuel build-up and an increase in damaging fire incidents which has led to the implementation of fuel load management tactics. Activities such as under-canopy burning, intensive weed control, the supply and apply system and environmentally friendly (cool) slash burning as well as the burning of open areas were revived, and in some areas intensified.

Following the successes of fuel load management, fire managers started to measure and map hazards on their plantations. The fuel hazard rating system is represented as a basic fuel classification that was colour coded as blue, green, yellow, orange and red in accordance with the degree of danger posed by fuel in a specific area (see photos at left). A plantation map with all the compartments and open areas colour coded according to their hazard status resulted. This entitled fire managers to identify 'hot spots' on their properties and left them with the aim to reduce the fire hazard in these areas.

Strategic buffer zones
A logical addition to this system is the incorporation of strategic buffer zones on estates – a concept designed by Dr. Neels de Ronde. After studying the hazard map, areas with excessive fuel loads can be identified. These areas are then isolated by creating buffer zones with a low fuel hazard, dividing the property into smaller blocks.

One of the shortcomings of this system, however, is the relatively high implementation and maintenance costs. Quite often fire mangers spend a lot of money to secure an area of low value.

The answer to this challenge lies in a risk analyses – a system invented by Shields (1992) that takes fuel hazard and vulnerability into consideration to determine the highest risk areas on an estate. In simple terms it comes down to two questions: How hazardous is the fuel in the area? What are the chances of a bad fire? And, if there is a fire what will be the extent of the damages suffered? These questions are numerically qualified and the weighted result of both questions indicates the risk in a specific area.

An example of a high risk area would be a compartment with high value trees that cannot be salvaged if they burn (very vulnerable) and at the same time, a highly flammable fuel load next to or under the trees (high hazard). Risks can now also be classified and mapped using the same colour coding as in the case of hazards.

This information gives fire managers a clear indication of where they should spend most of their money on efforts to achieve the most effective protection of their assets. The 80:20 principle can now be followed to address high risk areas. Implementation of this principle means that 80% of one's effort and money should be spent to secure the 20% highest risk areas on the property.

'Gap Analyses'
The latest development in the Fire Risk Analyses evolution is referred to as a 'Gap Analyses' and was designed by Nigel Wessels from SSI Engineers and Environmental Consultants. This system is based on a risk analyses and a critical evaluation of the fire mitigation means of the fire manager.

To implement this system, the fire manager must lay down minimum fire suppression standards and compare his organisation's performance against them.

Reaction time for initial attack – How fast do I need to get to the identified high risk areas on my property in case of a fire? (The legal response time for district fire services to get to a fire scene is 23 minutes). Reaction time will be influenced by the proximity of reaction vehicles to the high risk area, the condition of roads, accuracy of detection systems and the type of vehicle responding to the fire.

Water needed at a fire – A standard calculation for water needs at fires in commercial plantations in South Africa is 4L per afforested ha (Wessels & van Zyl, 2009). This norm is influenced by the capacity and number of vehicles (including aircraft) as well as the proximity of water sources to the high risk area. (L/ha is based on natural vegetation and fuel hazards).

Equipment needed at the fire – Standards laid down by the Lowveld Fire Protection Association for a 5 000-
10 000 ha commercial forestry plantation include:

  • 1 x fire truck with a minimum of 5 000L water capacity.3 x truck or tractor drawn fire fighting units with a minimum capacity of 2 000L each
  • 3 x bakkie sakkie mobile fast reaction fire fighting units with a minimum of 300L capacity of water.
  • 60 x fire beaters
  • 100 x rake hoes
  • 40 x knapsack water pumps with a minimum of 15L capacity.
  • 3 x grip torches
  • 7 x mobile radios
  • 7 x hand held radios
  • 7 x first aid kits.

Labour needed at the fire:

  • 1 x fire boss
  • 3 x crew leaders
  • 45 x fire fighters.

Other standards that might be considered might include minimum fire fighting training requirements and will differ from area to area.
Once the fire manager has a set of standards to measure performance against, the shortcomings or gaps can be addressed.

In conclusion
A fire hazard mapping and risk assessment, which includes the capturing of the land use patterns, fire history, fuel type/load, weather patterns, topography, fire ecology, and the configuration of economic, environmental and social assets, is essential to reduce the occurrence and effect of veldfires. An evaluation and gap analysis of current mitigation measures and capacity for integrated fire management which includes existing mitigation measures, capacity of institutional stakeholders, cooperation among landowners and the current state of compliance with the National Veld and Forest Fires Act have to conclude the risk analyses exercise. Non-compliances with the above need to be addressed on a yearly basis and should be scheduled in advance.

Published in April 2010

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