The aftermath of the 
Garden Route fires

September 19, 2017

Dead trees and bare soil left behind by the Knysna fires.

As the dust settles after the disastrous June fires in the Garden Route, the question is, where to now? This question was asked a few days after the fire already, but the inhabitants were literally too shell-shocked to find answers, and the wheels are only now slowly starting to grind …
By Theo Stehle
Photos courtesy of Southern Cape FPA

The article on the fires that was published in the June 2017 issue of SA Forestry, was written under pressure just days after the incident, with fire fighting and mopping up operations still going on. That article focused on the fires around Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, although serious fires also occurred in the Tsitsikamma and further east towards Port Elizabeth.

Although the wind that blew on that red fire day had the characteristics of a berg wind, a warm, very dry wind blowing offshore in the winter months, it wasn’t a typical berg wind. Typical berg winds blow from NE to NW, can be strong, in the order of 70 km/h, with temperatures of up to around 30° C and with air humidity dropping to between 20% and 30%. The wind gusts from the NW measured during the afternoon and evening of 7th June, when the fire reached the western parts of Knysna town, in fact reached speeds of up to 120 km/h. This is considered hurricane strength, unknown in this area up to now.

When the fire that originated east of Knysna reached the eastern part of MTO’s Kruisfontein plantation in the afternoon of the 7th June, a temperature of 28° C and an air humidity of only 8%, were measured. The deadly combination of wind speed, temperature and dry air, coupled to very high fuel loads dessicated after months of extreme drought, produced intense fires similar to a true fire storm, with superheated air spontaneously igniting anything combustible ahead of the flames. This accounted for the inferno in the built environment of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, which literally melted motorcar engines and incinerated houses.

The total burn footprint of the Sedgefield-Knysna-Plettenberg Bay fire is about 16 000 ha. (This includes forestry plantations, but excludes the fires in the Tsitsikamma and further east.)

There has been much speculation about the cause of the Knysna fire, with some blaming a lightning strike on 12th April that started a fire in the Elandskraal area that smouldered for several weeks before it flared up and turned into an inferno on 7th June. The Knysna Municipality’s investigation concludes that the evidence points to a man-made fire on a farm in the Elandskraal area that got away and caused the blaze, although there’s no evidence at this stage as to whether it was deliberate or accidental.

Fire crew takes a breather during mopping up operations.

Lessons from the fire
Meanwhile local stakeholders are anxious to learn from this event to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Paul Gerber, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Cape FPA, provided a run-down of the nine main lessons learnt from the incident:
1. Overall there is a greater need for integrated fire management.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. All spheres of government involved in fire disasters need to be trained in the incident command system.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire …

In the case of the fire in the MTO Longmore Plantation where 5 000 ha of the plantation was lost, priority was given to saving the Longmore forest village, housing about 150 people, and the sawmill, above the plantation. Although the sawmill was lost, the people were evacuated and the village was saved. This was achieved largely by MTO’s own efforts. According to Braam du Preez, independent fire consultant, “some serious questions need to be posed about the preparedness, competence and involvement of the Sarah Baartman District Municipality in disasters like this”.

‘Knysna rises’ was the slogan adopted after the fire, as the people of the town and surrounding rural areas rose to the challenge to salvage, rebuild, rehabilitate and restore the built and natural environment after the fire.

Because of the immensity of the challenge, it was decided that the Western Cape Provincial Government would take over the disaster mitigation and post-fire rehabilitation/recovery oversight from the Knysna Municipality, and that national Government would become involved where necessary, including the provision of relief funds.

A multi-agency approach was adopted to guide the rebuilding process. For this purpose various working teams were assembled, inter alia environmental, social, economic and infrastructure teams, incorporating experts from various disciplines. The forestry companies would have their own working groups, but would be asked to join up with the environmental task team regarding environmental issues.

A post-fire survey by 10 expert teams which covered the burnt area in all-terrain vehicles (sponsored by Wilderness Search and Rescue), was conducted and the data has been released.

Impacts on the Environment
Len du Plessis, Planning Manager of the Garden Route National Park, divided the impacts of the fire on the environment into five major areas:
1. Bare landscapes in which the soil has been sterilised and totally broken down by hot fires, and in which refugia for fauna were lost and species would have to recolonize. The sense of place in these areas has totally changed. Burnt, dead and dying trees pose a safety risk.
2. Soil erosion: Loss of ground cover, hydrophobicity (water penetration and retention abilities have been destroyed), resulting in run-off instead of absorption. On steep slopes there is the risk of landslides and gully formation, with resulting turbidity and sedimentation in water courses after rains.
3. Pollution: Damage to infrastructure, defective waste management; dealing with hazardous waste like asbestos in built environments.
4. Altered animal movement patterns in response to habitat destruction: possible extinctions of very limited endemic fauna.
5. Alien vegetation regeneration. A massive explosion of alien invasive plants is possible, depending on the extent to which exotic and indigenous seed banks have been destroyed by the hot fires.

The Post-fire Environmental Challenges and Responses Working Group (consisting of representatives of inter alia SANParks, CapeNature, Nelson Mandela University George Campus, the local FPA, DAFF, the Knysna Municipality and the Southern Cape Landowners’ Initiative [SCLI]) met in late June to brainstorm around addressing the various environmental challenges and opportunities. Three phases in which the post-fire landscape is to be approached, were identified, according to Len du Plessis:
• Conceptualise; conduct a situation analysis.
• Collect and collate data to inform mitigation measures currently to be applied, most of it by way of GIS. For this purpose the GIS capacities of the local municipalities, SANParks, the FPA and SCLI were lumped together.
• Implement. The Southern Cape FPA was identified as the implementing agent and for this purpose it is to be strengthened by additional resources.

Immediate interventions will be to identify and prioritise areas for erosion mitigation measures and to deal with burnt or dead standing trees across the landscape. The FPA has already, under scientific guidance, begun to stabilise high priority, denuded steep sandy slopes with ‘Woodedheart sausages and blankets’ filled with hardwood chips, and engage hydroseeders to introduce appropriate seed mixtures and water to rehabilitate and stabilise.

A flush of alien invader plants is expected, and in the meantime herbicide stocks are to be purchased and stored in readiness. Circumstances will dictate whether aerial spraying could be used to good effect in certain areas, and also whether there are areas in which indigenous seed banks have been destroyed, and where it would be better for soil stability to allow temporary establishment of alien plants.

Forestry rehabilitation strategy
Shortly after the worst of the fires was over, Forestry South Africa (FSA) and Sawmilling South Africa (SSA) met to decide on a strategy to rebuild the seriously affected timber industry. It was decided that information and statistics emanating from the burning of commercial plantations would be pooled and made available for the Industry as a whole. Forestry firms have up to now been very reluctant to disclose company-specific information.

According to Michael Peter, Executive Director of FSA, the burn footprint of forestry plantations in total was over 15 000 ha (29% of the total planted area in the region), with losses to the industry estimated to be at least half a billion Rand. Roy Southey, Executive Director of SSA, puts the direct cost to the industry of extinguishing the fire at more than R20 million.

“Fortunately the burnt plantation age class distribution is weighted in favour of younger compartments, so it will not cause a gap in timber supply immediately, but in the longer term (in about 10 – 12 years’ time),” said Michael.

Request for assistance
Both Michael and Roy informed SA Forestry magazine that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) had been approached by FSA and SSA with proposals and requests for assistance, to which it was very receptive, of course within the limits of the current economic conditions and finance available from the fiscus.

The first proposal was about obtaining assistance from the State to re-capitalize the restoration of the burnt areas in order to get them back into production as quickly as possible. The proposal entailed a partnership between the State and the private sector in which both parties would contribute on a 1:1 basis.

The second proposal in the form of a request was for DAFF to consider delaying the clear-felling of the remaining exit areas by MTO Forestry in terms of the exit lease agreement, in order to give preference to the felling of burnt timber ahead of green timber. In terms of the lease agreement the exit areas have to be cleared by 2020.

This would be of tremendous relief for the local sawmilling industry which is faced with an over-supply of timber from the exit areas as well as salvaged timber from burnt areas in the immediate future, whereafter there will be a shortage in supply. It will ensure a more even, drawn out, sustainable supply of the log mix required by the sawmilling industry.

DAFF was also requested to favourably consider re-incorporating into the productive forestry area those cleared exit areas that are lying fallow and have no reasonable prospects of being managed for new land uses anytime soon, as well as the remainder of the exit areas earmarked for clear-felling in terms of the lease agreement. The advantage of this is obvious, viz. that it would greatly relieve the shortage of supply to the local wood-processing industry in the longer term, as well as solving the problem of unmanaged Government forestry land in the southern Cape and Boland becoming infested by alien invader plants and posing a serious fire risk.

Helicopters took over fire fighting duties in steep, rugged terrain.

The challenges that forestry companies affected by the fires will need to address over the coming months are considerable:-
1. As there is only a six month window within which to salvage burnt timber, additional markets have to be found for the expected surplus. MTO is considering exporting their surpluses. Even small dimension logs and planks that cannot be absorbed by the local boxwood market may have to be exported as industrial timber. South African wood preservers are also concerned that burnt pine will not absorb preservatives.
2. A way has to be found to store excess burnt timber so that it does not deteriorate. This can be done on “wet decks”. The amount of timber that can be stored in this way – and for how long - needs to be determined.
3. MTO is busy investigating possibilities for wet storage in its plantations, with the best prospects being in the Tsitsikamma. Elsewhere serious lack of water owing to the drought is a constraint. AC Whitcher and PG Bison are also considering wet deck storage. The authorities were approached to waive procedures for EIAs in order to begin with wet deck storage as soon as possible.
4. MTO has done a fire intensity survey and evaluation for different plantation areas. Harvesting will be prioritised based on this information. Some areas may recover, while dead trees may in some places degrade faster than in others. Remote sensing technology will be used for this process.
5. The cost of harvesting and transport logistics has to be carefully considered and balanced against the expected market value of the timber.
6. The manpower resources available to undertake the work that needs to be done is another major challenge. MTO will use local contractors as far as possible, but will have to bring in additional contractors from elsewhere. According to MTO, because of the high volumes that must be harvested within a short period of time by skilled people, mechanised systems will have to be used, although the topography is a limiting factor. However, re-establishment of burnt areas will be labour intensive.

On the other hand Roy conveyed the industry’s concern that it needs to have sustained jobs. In the long term, the expected gap in timber supply will result in an inevitable slump in employment.

*First published in SA Forestry Magazine, Aug 2017

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