Mega-fires, politics and the force of nature

January 13, 2023
Ghostly post mega-fire landscape, Southern Cape.

The number and severity of out-of-control wildfires are increasing around the world, causing untold damage to the environment, to infrastructure and the local economies, not to mention the loss of life and suffering of fire victims – both human and animal.

We all know why this is happening … climate change, prolonged dry spells followed by high winds, uncontrolled development on the urban-wildland interface, the proliferation of invasive alien plants leading to high fuel loads, changing land use patterns, poor land management, criminality, negligence and arson.

Yet we live in an environment here in southern Africa that is described as ‘fire-prone’. The natural landscapes around us actually need fire to maintain their ecological integrity. Surely we should have learned to manage these dynamics by now?

The fact of the matter is that fire is a primal force of nature that is not easily controlled, and in some instances is uncontrollable. Therefore human efforts to manage fire are always going to be caught short. Once a big fire is rampaging through a dry landscape with high fuel loads and strong winds behind it, there is no stopping it.

Our best option is to try and manage the conditions that fuel the development of uncontrollable wildfires in the first place, and to get our disaster teams organised to deal with the consequences when they do happen. This is easier said than done, requiring a level of cooperation between land owners, land managers, fire protection associations, fire authorities at all levels of government - and the weather gods – that has thus far escaped us.

Nelson Mandela University has made a huge contribution to efforts to understand and manage the dynamics that surround fire management through the development of a comprehensive Fire Management study programme and the hosting of annual Fire Management symposiums that bring together fire experts from around the country and the world.

Many of these fire experts attended the most recent 13th Fire Management Symposium held at NMU’s George Campus in November last year, thrashing out the issues, comparing notes and networking furiously. Useful, but unlikely to stop the next mega-fire. As one experienced delegate pointed out, we talk and talk but get no closer to achieving the level of collaboration required by all the fire stakeholders to actually make a difference.

Well controlled prescribed burn in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park is designed to reduce fuel loads in an effort to prevent unwanted wildfires.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the absence at these symposiums of key government figures who could influence policy and resource allocation at national, provincial and local levels that would enable fire management stakeholders to ramp up their capacity to manage fire.

Forestry companies find themselves in the trenches at the fire-line, spending their own money to protect their plantations and processing facilities from wildfires, many of which are started outside of their boundaries. They prop up local fire protection associations, run fire awareness campaigns and put out fires they didn’t start.

This is where the rubber hits the tar.

One of the highlights of the recent Symposium was the presentation by Montigny Investments’ Risk Manager, Arno Pienaar. The Montigny team operates 80 000 ha of forest land in neighbouring Eswatini, and have implemented an old school ‘military style’ approach to keep fires out of their plantations, with considerable success. These are the same plantations that burnt to the ground in 2008, resulting in the closure of the Usutu pulp mill and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Montigny Investments is now the biggest single employer in Eswatini, and they simply cannot afford to allow another mega-fire to destroy it all again. So they have made their own plans, unconventional but effective (see full story here).

One of the keys to Montigny’s success, and this came up again and again during the symposium, was the need to get local communities on your side to prevent wildfires from happening. Properly on your side. Cut out arson fires started by angry, bored, poor, disgruntled neighbours, and half your battle is won.

This is way easier said than done, and involves a complete overhaul of the socio-economic conditions that prevail in much of southern Africa. It’s complicated, and goes way beyond the scope of the fire management fraternity.

Lessons from a mega-fire

Perhaps it would be useful to re-look at the learnings that Paul Gerber, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Cape FPA, took from the 2017 mega-fire that turned large swaths of the Southern Cape region between George and PE to a cinder in 2017.

The Southern Cape Fire Protection Association has its hands full keeping wildfires out of this region.

• Overall there is a greater need for integrated fire management.

• Greater focus needs to be directed at awareness of the general public as well as different authorities, concerning the fire hazards that exist in the natural as well as built environment.

• Lack of financial resources: Plans for fire fighting are good but must be implementable by providing ample resources. The emphasis needs to be on being pro-active rather than reactive. A good example here is that helicopters are not deployed early enough while fires are still small and conditions are favourable, because of the high operating costs involved. They are only released when fires have assumed disastrous proportions, by which time conditions are often no longer safe for flying.

• Because of a general shortage of fire-fighting capacity and resources, more emphasis should be placed on pro-active fire prevention measures, especially controlled burns. In the well-known fire triangle, the fuel load, particularly the fine fuel component, is the only factor that can be managed and controlled. This is the factor on which all involved in fire prevention should concentrate.

• The use of media in informing and warning people was not effective. In the recent fire there was a lack of communication with the public/residents, as well as among fire fighting crews during the operations. The need for an independent, dedicated two-way radio communication system during disasters was identified, as communications via existing radio and cell-phone networks proved to be ineffective at times.

• Tactical and operational planning for the combatting of wildfires of this size should rely heavily on local experience and knowledge. With the introduction of authorities from elsewhere to take command, it was found that advice from local fire experts was disregarded.

• All spheres of government involved in fire disasters need to be trained in the incident command system.

• Divisional supervisors (‘fire bosses’) need to be well trained. At the Knysna fire there were not enough qualified fire bosses. Such supervisors need to undergo organised training courses. In the recent fire five FPA managers had to be made available to act as divisional supervisors.

• The need for fire fighting personnel experienced in veld fires who know how to make back-burns, was identified. The holiday resort of Buffalo Bay and the Fairview forest village were saved from being destroyed by judicious back-burns by foresters. It must be noted that some authorities would not give permission for such operations to be conducted.

• In the urban-rural interface, many houses built amongst natural vegetation burnt down. This practice must be reviewed and buildings need defendable space around them in the case of wildfires.

Here are some take-outs from the 13th Fire Management Symposium:-

A common thread of wildfires around the world … droughts followed by heat waves with temps above 40 degrees C and strong winds - Greg Forsyth, CSIR

Symposium presenters fielding questions from the floor (left to right) Ian Pienaar (Montigny), Trevor Abrahams (WoF), Paul Gerber (Southern Cape FPA) and Pam Booth (Knysna Municipality).

10 000 ha burnt in five hours. Final size of the fire: 189 000 ha. Flame lengths: 300 metres - Rodeo-Chediski fire, Arizona, 2002.

When it rains a lot in dry parts of South Africa, beware the following year the risk of wildfires increases - Greg Forsyth, CSIR

Building regulations should take fire risk into account – Greg Forsyth.

More accurate, balanced and informed reporting on fire is needed in SA – Lee Raath Brownie, Fire & Rescue International.

Fires are a people problem – Arno Pienaar, Montigny.

We need 17 000 wildland fire fighters in SA. We have 5 300 – Trevor Abrahams, Working on Fire.

One of the successes of the WoF programme are the many people who come through the programme and move into positions of employment. 60% of WoF managers are former WoF firefighters – Trevor Abrahams.

Working on Fire is a government job creation initiative that trains and deploys young fire fighters who assist landowners in times of need.

We talk and don’t implement. We are still doing it – Paul Gerber, Southern Cape FPA.

The Knysna fire was reported two months before it turned into a big fire. It was left to smoulder – Paul Gerber.

Fire is part of the African landscape. If you exclude it, it will lead to higher fuel loads and ultimately bigger fires – Piet van der Merwe, WoF.

Fires grow exponentially after ignition. The quicker you can get to it, the smaller is the fire and the easier it is to put out. – Piet van der Merwe.

We need to figure out how to capacitate FPAs … almost all of them are dependent on private sector funding – Val Charlton, Land Works.

Integrated fire prevention is a leadership problem more than a funding problem … there is an absence of political leadership and support – Etienne du Toit, Western Cape Government

Fuel load influences all the pillars of your fire management strategy – Deon Greyling, Mondi.

Big fires change the ecology of a landscape – Dr Rachel Loehman, US Geological Survey.

Pine and fynbos are highly flammable and fire prone – Dr Annelise Schutte-Vlok, Cape Nature.

Fire frequency is lower in small and medium grower plantations – Jeffrey le Roux, Sappi.

Everything that happens on the surface of the earth affects the groundwater, which provides 30% of the world’s fresh water. All pollution percolates down into the groundwater. So wildfires and groundwater are intimately linked – Dr Jo Barnes.

The ‘bakkie sakkie’ is the basic equipment that helps foresters keep wildfires out of their plantations.
Rehabilitation work on the go to prevent soil erosion near Knysna after the 2017 inferno.
Stihl knapsacks, blowers and chainsaws on display at the symposium.
Timber salvaged by PG Bison after the 2017 Knysna fires is stacked in a massive wet deck that at its height was 3 km long, 24 metres wide and 4.5 metres high. (Photo courtesy Roger Parsons and Ritchie Morris)
Fighting fires is dangerous work … you need the right gear.
Tiaan Pool, Head of the Forestry, Wood Technology and Veldfire Management Department at Nelson Mandela University, is the driving force behind the Fire Symposiums held at the NMU George campus.


*Check out the related feature: Military approach to fire prevention at Montigny

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