The Great Woodchip Fire of 2023 … what now?

2nd October … smoke plume visible for miles around.

It has been dubbed ‘the Great Woodchip Fire of 2023’. It destroyed 200 000 tons of woodchips at NCT’s Richards Bay facility, severely damaged infrastructure and will leave a big hole in the forestry and wood processing value chains. But South Africans are a tenacious bunch, and as soon as the smoke had cleared the hard work of mopping up, assessing the damage and planning the repair and rebuild began. The optimistic expectation is that the timber at the NCT facility will be flowing on one chipping line within eight months, and business will be back to normal production within a year to 14 months.

Chip pile fires are notorious for their ferocity – especially when fanned by hot, gale-force winds – and they are always very hard to extinguish. And so it turned out at NCT’s chipping and export facility in Richards Bay when a fire broke out on a chip pile on the last day of September, and raged for 10 days straight, consuming two massive chip piles and threatening to spread to neighbouring businesses and suburbs. Fire fighters from far and wide, local businesses and the people of Richards Bay rallied around and finally extinguished the blaze on October 12.

NCT general manager Danny Knoesen and his team have spent the past few weeks tirelessly shuttling between the fire ground zero, the post-fire mop-up and rebuild war room, member tree farmers and NCT customers on the other side of the world to keep everyone informed, on board and to come up with alternative arrangements to mitigate the disruption to business that the fire has wrought.

2nd October … burning through the night.

According to current estimates it will take around eight months to get one chipping line going, while the team is considering the possibility of getting temporary chipping capacity in place even sooner. Current estimate is that the facility could get back to normal production levels in a year to 14 months. NCT’s plan pre-fire was to build a third chipping line by 2025, and this is still on the cards.

Good news

The good news is that the fire has been completely extinguished, and nobody lost their lives or their homes despite the highly dangerous conditions faced by NCT staff, firefighters, neighbouring businesses and local inhabitants.

The not-such-good news is that 200 000 tons of woodchips and round logs – i.e. all of the stock that was in the NCT yard at the time of the fire – has been destroyed or so badly damaged as to be worthless. There is also extensive damage to infrastructure including conveyers and gantries on both the wattle and Eucalyptus chip lines. It is nothing short of a multi-billion rand catastrophe.

4th October … fire still going strong.

NCT has declared ‘force majeure’ with three large export customers in China and Japan, and has already met with them to explain the circumstances and try find a way to mitigate the disruption to their businesses until NCT can get back to the business of supplying them with chips. Force majeure is a clause that is included in contracts to remove liability for unforeseen and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and prevent participants from fulfilling their obligations in terms of the contract.

Impact on NCT member tree farmers

Then there is the inevitable slow down in timber flowing from NCT’s 2 000 member tree farmers who supply the co-op with their raw material, whose cashflow will be severely dented as a result of the fire. This will have a ripple effect, impacting on contractors and other suppliers who feed goods and services into this forestry value chain.

Danny admitted that the tree farmers are in a difficult situation as a result of the loss of stock and damage to the export facility, but the NCT team is hard at work to find ways to mitigate the impacts on them.

4th October … both chip piles burning.

“The wattle growers need to be able to harvest so the bark can be stripped and passed on to the bark factories at UCL and NTE, so we are by and large encouraging wattle members to continue to harvest, and to hold their timber stock in depot. We will add a few more ships to our Durban operation to try to mitigate the lack of wattle business for the upcoming season, and we think that TWK will do the same. So we could try and capture about 90% of the wattle season.

“On the euc side we will chase domestic markets to see what we can do to try and improve the euc offtake from our members – but that is going to be a challenge, especially for our smaller growers. We are looking at ways to mitigate that, but we don’t have all the answers yet,” said Danny.

As to the longer term impacts on the business, Danny believes they will not lose any of their regular customers as the demand for NCT’s woodchips will continue to be strong.

“We know our export customers will wait for us. We are an important cog in their wheel and NCT is a vital supplier to the pulp and paper sector in Asia, and once our facility is up and running we hope to get back to business as normal,” he said.

A commitment has been made by NCT to retain all their staff, who will be re-focused on recovery and rebuilding efforts. NCT employs 700 people.

7th October … excavators spreading and cooling the chip pile. Conveyor system damage visible.

Containing the fire

Another piece of good news: the fire didn’t spread to the chip pile at the TWK woodchip export facility situated right next door to NCT despite numerous incidents of spotting which were quickly extinguished. Nor did it spread to Foskor, a major manufacturer of fertilizers, located behind TWK. Foskor has stockpiles of sulphur and ammonia housed in their yard that are used in their manufacturing process, which could have caused extensive damage had they caught fire. Sulphur is highly toxic, and ammonia is like gunpowder.

More good news: despite the fact that at the height of the inferno burning debris was being blown by gale-force winds across the John Ross highway and igniting the brush and threatening nearby houses, these flare-ups were contained by firefighters from the municipality and local businesses as well as local residents armed with buckets of water and makeshift fire beaters.

7th October … nearly there.

Fish kill

Not-such-good-news: fish were reported to have washed up dead in a canal close to the NCT yard that is connected to the sea, possibly as a result of the water used in the firefighting activities that entered the storm water system which discharged into the canal. NCT has been issued with an environmental directive by the environmental authorities and they are responding to that directive. In the meanwhile NCT has called in Ground Truth, a multi-disciplinary consulting company with a specialist focus on issues surrounding water resources, biodiversity and environmental engineering, to help evaluate the causes of the fish die-off and limit the damage.

“We suspect at this stage that it was dissolved oxygen deficiency in the water, but we will wait for the results of the tests,” said Danny.

So what caused the fire in the first place?

Progress of the fire

Apparently it started under a conveyer system on the side of a chip pile that was not running at the time and had not been in production for 10 days prior to the start of the fire. The NCT team believe that it was not caused by equipment or the conveyor, it was not an accident and it was not arson and it was not caused by human intervention, and it was not internal combustion as it started on the outside of the chip pile. So at this stage it is a bit of a mystery.

In the meanwhile a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire is on-going, and hopefully it will come up with answers.

But what we do know is that a small wisp of smoke at the chip pile was first detected at 12.44 pm on Saturday 30 September. Within 10 minutes the NCT fire crew was on the scene under the command of NCT Operations Manager Ryno Martin.

Weather conditions at the time were hot, dry and windy. Despite the fact that the chips have a 30% moisture content, the fire, which started quite small, spread rapidly.

A second proto team arrived soon after with extra equipment. According to reports it looked like the firefighters may be able to contain the blaze, but at 4.45 pm the wind suddenly switched around from north east to south west, blowing at around 50 km/hour. This overpowered the good work that had been done and the fire got away.

Aerial water bombers despatched by the Zululand FPA were unable to attack the fire due to the dangerous conditions.

By 11 pm that night the second NCT chip pile was ablaze, and by Sunday morning the scene was like ‘hell on earth’ with the smoke plume visible for miles.

Additional fire fighting resources from all over started arriving during the day including from uMhlathuze Municipality, Transnet, Mondi, South32 and Sappi to assist the now exhausted NCT fire fighters. Fixed wing fire fighting aircraft from the Zululand FPA and the KZN FPA based in Howick as well as helicopters from Working on Fire and specialised units from ADT joined the fray.

Due to the heat of the fire and the weather conditions they were unable to contain the main blaze, and the focus shifted to preventing the nearby TWK chip pile from catching fire and setting off another chain of destructive fire events.

8th October … mopping up.

Under control

By 9th October the fire was under control and excavators were deployed to spread out the chip piles, further cooling the blaze. By the morning of the 10th October, the fire was finally extinguished.

The manner in which local people and businesses and authorities all came together during the crisis to assist and support the fire fighting effort was quite remarkable, and has not gone unnoticed. NCT sponsored an entire supplement in the local newspaper to thank everybody for their good will and their support during the fire.

Now it’s all hands on deck to get back to business, and to rebuild the facility - with enhanced fire fighting capacity. Many hard lessons have been learned from the Great Woodchip Fire of 2023, and hopefully these will prevent future fire catastrophes.

NCT General Manager Danny Knoesen (pictured) and his staff have got a big job on their hands to get NCT back to business as usual.

*All fire photos by Neels Reyneke

Big boost for the bakkie-sakkie

Compact and powerful … the new bakkie sakkie is a result of collaboration between Anco Manufacturing and Husqvarna.

Every land manager knows that early detection and rapid response is the best method for keeping your property safe from wildfires. Often the first person to arrive at a wildfire is a forester or farmer with a ‘bakkie sakkie’ which is able to get close enough to the fire to extinguish it before it gets big, dangerous and out of control.

Those precious few minutes provide a window of opportunity that can make the difference between a minor fire statistic and a major wildfire disaster. It’s at times like this that the forester/farmer wants to know that the bakkie sakkie on the back of his vehicle is armed and loaded and ready to deploy a jet of water with enough velocity to kill the fire quickly and efficiently.

Now two heavy-weight equipment suppliers - Husqvarna and ANCO Manufacturing - have collaborated in an exciting partnership to develop a highly effective, robust and reliable 'Bakkie Sakkie' mobile firefighting unit that is well adapted to combating veld and forest fires.

Ruan van Schalkwyk, Husqvarna's Area Business Manager for Limpopo and Mpumalanga, and the project's pointsman, explains: "The concept is simple yet remarkably ingenious. ANCO designed a water tank engineered to be mounted at the rear of a bakkie (pickup truck). Powered by a robust Husqvarna multi-purpose engine (MPE) and a high-capacity water pump, the result is a mobile firefighting unit that can be rapidly deployed to combat fires, even in the most remote and challenging terrains.”

The key component of this firefighting innovation is the Husqvarna HH 163 MP multi-purpose engine, known for its reliability and robustness. It features a powerful 163cc petrol engine that is durable, water, and rust-resistant, making it ideal for the 'Bakkie Sakkie' unit.

“This engine is built to withstand the harsh conditions often encountered during firefighting,” says Ruan.
One of the standout features of the HH 163 MP is its optimised combustion chamber and air vent, resulting in lower fuel consumption and reduced emissions during operation.

Casper Pieterse, the Operations Manager at ANCO Manufacturing, says that the decision to partner with Husqvarna was an easy one. “The idea for the collaboration originated with Husqvarna South Africa’s Managing Director, Pieter Smuts. When it was presented to us, we recognised the potential of their product powering the ‘Bakkie Sakkie’, offering farmers a game-changing, reliable solution to the very real and ongoing threat of veld fires.”

Anco Manufacturing is a proudly South African company that specialises in the manufacture of a variety of fire fighting units and equipment as well as silviculture equipment used in forestry, such as mechanised boom planters.

By combining the ‘Bakkie Sakkie’ with the HH 163 MP multi-purpose engine that fits snugly on the back of a bakkie, farmers and foresters can respond swiftly and effectively to fires, making all the difference in containing a blaze before it escalates.

“Husqvarna has an impressive reputation for reliability, and we are confident that by combining our manufacturing expertise with Husqvarna’s powerful MPE, we have a dependable resource that will deliver optimal performance when it’s needed most,” adds Casper.

The partnership between Husqvarna and ANCO Manufacturing has positioned both companies as innovators in firefighting technology. Their commitment to creating an effective product that will assist professionals, as well as farmers in their firefighting efforts, showcases their ongoing dedication to finding creative solutions that also maximise safety. The ‘Bakkie Sakkie’ represents a new standard in innovation and another step forward in ensuring that first responders have the tools they need to access and attack fires before they get away.

For more information on the HH 163 MP or to view Husqvarna’s range of products, visit https://www.husqvarna.com/za/

Local wildfire detection system shines

The FireHawk cameras mounted on the Marten Mountain Lookout Tower in Canada were monitored by the FireHawk ops room in Chile.

The South African-developed FireHawk wildfire detection system has been found to be the most effective fixed fire detection and reporting system in an international trial that took place in Canada recently.

FireHawk combines human skill with artificial intelligence to keep watch over two million hectares of forest land around the world, alerting landowners and triggering rapid response whenever a fire is detected.

Willem Oosthuizen, CEO of FireHawk South Africa, explains: “The Alberta Wildfire Detection Challenge was a collaboration between Alberta Wildfire, Alberta Innovates, and FPInnovations. Six commercially-available fixed fire detection systems were installed and operated on the Marten Mountain Lookout tower near Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada, during the 2022 wildfire season. The aim was to test these fire detection systems in an operational environment in an area that experiences an average of 20 wildfires annually.”

The trial programme organisers invited 17 leading fire detection service providers from around the world to submit applications. This was narrowed down to the best six applicants who were selected to take part in the challenge. The selected applicants were provided a contract with funding to demonstrate their systems using their own proprietary equipment. A total of 54 events were recorded during the test period, and of these 14 were real wildfires and 33 were test smokes.

The Marten Mountain Fire Lookout Tower manned by local fire watch personnel also participated in the trial in order to provide comparative data.

The FireHawk cameras mounted on the Marten Mountain Lookout Tower were monitored remotely from FireHawk’s operations base in Chile for the trial.

Study location
All systems were installed on the Marten Mountain Lookout tower in Alberta, Canada. The tower is 20 km north of the Town of Slave Lake. The 40 km radius of the lookout coverage area has the following views: to the west is the waterbody of Slave Lake; to the east is a hill that limits visibility; to the south is the town of Slave Lake and the Mitsue industrial area; to the north is forest. Boreal forest species are the primary vegetation cover. Many industrial activities such as forestry, oil, and gas are also spread across the landscape.

This boreal forest area experiences a high number of wildfires due to a high number of lightning strikes and human activities. In 2011, a wildfire entered the town of Slave Lake and burned around 500 structures.

Evaluation metrics
Four metrics were used to evaluate the performance of the detection systems: detection distance, reporting efficiency, location accuracy, and system availability.

Detection distance
Results show the Marten Mountain Lookout observer was effective at the 40 km distance for both test smokes and wildfires. In addition, the lookout observer also detected a wildfire smoke at 46 km.

Of the six fixed detection systems, FireHawk had the best performance with an 88% detection success rate between 10 and 20 km on test smokes, and 78% between 20 and 30 km.

Reporting efficiency
FireHawk had the fastest average time reporting test smokes among the six systems: 3 minutes @ 5-10 kms; 6 minutes @ 10-20 kms; 10 mins @ 20-30 kms; 7 mins @ 30-40 kms.

The Marten Mountain Lookout observer was the best performer of all trialists with an average of 4 minutes over all distances. The rest of the fixed systems exceeded 10 minutes.

System availability
The total number of operational hours between July 1 and September 15 (8:00 am to 8:00 pm daily) was 924 hours.

The Marten Mountain Lookout observer did not have any downtime. Neither did FireHawk, which recorded 100% availability.

Firehawk systems use human operators. The data shows that these systems perform better than systems that do not have human operators.

Location accuracy
IQ FireWatch had the best accuracy on reporting locations and was better than the Marten Mountain lookout’s performance. SmokeD was second overall, but the sample numbers were too low beyond 10 kms to determine the reliability of the result.

Night detection
Night detection is the detection service provided during low or no sunlight. ForestWatch, SmokeD, and FireHawk chose to provide detection coverage outside of the operational period which included night detection. Only eight detection messages from public reporting and FireHawk were considered as night detection.

These results show that FireHawk has the ability to detect fires during night time. Two successful night detections were the results of an attended fire and a car fire. These two detection successes suggest that this type of detection system could be used as a monitoring tool at night.

Human operators
Firehawk, IQ FireWatch, ForestWatch, and SmokeD systems used human operators. The data showed that these systems performed better than systems that did not have human operators.

FireHawk also had the lowest number of false alarms at 11 over the two and a half months trial period.

“We are proud that our FireHawk system experienced no downtime during the detection challenge, and had the highest number of detection successes among the systems taking part in the programme,” said Willem. “It was a privilege to take part in this international testing of different wildfire detection systems.”

Where it all began
After 16 years of experience in aerial spraying and aerial fire fighting, Jake Oosthuizen formed Zululand Fire Protection Services cc. (ZFPS) in 1994 with the object of providing a service to the Zululand timber industry. Initially, the operation was started by taking over the control centre of the Zululand Fire Protection Association (ZFPA), which coordinated all fire fighting operations in the Zululand Coastal Area (approximately 80 000 hectares of timber).

At that time, the Control Centre had a very low profile and provided a basic communication service to the timber growers in the area. Over time, the Control Centre became the heart of all firefighting operations in Zululand. ZFPS expanded to include the management of ZIFPA.

In 1994, ZFPS was instrumental in the development of the FireHawk system that is today used in South Africa, Chile, Brazil, Malawi and Ghana.

FireHawk was the first computerized fire detection system in the world and has been operating commercially for the past 28 years. The first system was installed in Richmond in 1994 and is still operational today.

This is where it all started … the first FireHawk system was installed in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal in 1994, and is still operational today.

The FireHawk system uses 360 degrees rotating high definition digital cameras to monitor areas and transmits information to a base station that is manned by operators. The software differentiates between fire, smoke and glow, and then raises an alarm. Positioning is done from a single camera, with the ability to cross reference for improved accuracy.

FireHawk now monitors approximately 591 000 hectares of timber plantations in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga.

It also monitors 650 000 ha of timber in Chile, 155 000 ha in Brazil, 4 000 ha of sugar cane in Malawi and 600 000 ha of Burmese Teak in Ghana.

Find out more at firehawk.co.za

Mega-fires, politics and the force of nature

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

Military approach to fire prevention at Montigny

Fire … forestry’s Number One enemy!

How the Montigny team keep unwanted fire out of their Eswatini plantations …

A return to sound forestry practices of the past coupled with the introduction of a military-style approach to fire management at Montigny Investments forests in Eswatini has had a big impact in reducing the number and severity of wildfires experienced in the company’s plantations. Key factors in the turnaround include improved community relations, a zero tolerance approach to arson and crime, well trained and drilled ground-based fire teams and astute use of tried and tested ‘old fashioned’ fire prevention methods coupled with modern technology.

Commercial tree plantations in Eswatini – particularly the Usutu plantation - have a history of fire, due to a combination of rugged, mountainous terrain, extreme weather events and a proliferation of arson fires.

Massive fires in 2007/8 destroyed large swaths of the Usutu pine plantation (then owned by Sappi) resulting in the eventual closure of the Usutu pulp mill and the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Montigny Investments, a Swazi owned and operated, integrated timber business, purchased the Usutu forests in 2014, bringing their total land holding to 80 000 ha of which 50 000 ha is planted. The Montigny team is renowned for its innovative and highly practical approach to business, and this approach was applied to the development of a fire prevention strategy that is designed to keep their plantations safe from massive fires such as the one that destroyed Usutu in 2007.

Aerial view of Montigny timber processing facility, Eswatini. Montigny processes more than one million tons of timber a year.

According to Montigny Forestry Manager Jurgens Kritzinger, they looked at the history of fires in the plantations that they operate, and discovered that in the old days there were fewer fires, less damage, better roads, good relationships with neighbouring communities and own operations. As time went by the ownership changes at Usutu led to outsourcing of operations, unhappy people and more arson fires.

The Montigny team turned the ship around by going back to some of the best practices that worked well in the past, re-introduced own ops using their own people and own equipment, put huge emphasis on building community relationships, invested in improved roads, planted dynamic wattle belts and employed a military expert to help them adopt a military-style approach to fire prevention.

Arno Pienaar was serving with a security company in Iraq when he was head hunted by Montigny to head up their fire and risk management function in 2015. Surprisingly, at the time of his appointment Arno had zero forestry experience and zero fire management experience. But the Montigny management were confident they had enough people with forestry and plantation fire experience already – what they needed was Arno’s military expertise.

Arno Pienaar … Montigny Group Risk Manager, presenting at the13th Fire Management Symposium at Nelson Mandela University’s George Campus, South Africa.

In 2015, the Montigny approach to fire management was introduced, with immediate results. That year the company suffered damage to just 18.4 hectares of plantation as a result of wildfire. Prior to that, average annual fire damage was 1 000 hectares. There was also a marked decline in the number of arson fires recorded.

This was not just a flash in the pan, a lucky break! The ever improving fire stats have been sustained to the present day, and speak for themselves:-

YEARHECTARES DAMAGED BY FIREARSON FIRES
2014606 ha
2015 (new system introduced)18.4 ha19
201674.8 ha11
201706
201845 ha5
2019590 ha6
20204.3 ha1
2021145 ha8
20222.9 ha5

Arno provided some insights into the Montigny approach to fire prevention at the 13th Fire Management Symposium held at Nelson Mandela University’s George campus in November 2022.

Fighting fires is a bit like fighting a battle, he said. Success depends upon clear objectives, good preparation and intelligence, the availability of well trained personnel on the ground, the right tools and plenty of ammunition.

All the elements of fire management were carefully analysed in the process of developing a comprehensive strategy that left no stone unturned: fuel load management and fire break preparation, fire detection, reaction, suppression, command and control at the fire front and in the control room, mop up and patrols.

Good intelligence is crucial, explained Arno. Know all the relevant facts.

Reducing the number of arson fires was a key priority. They analysed where arson fires were started, what time of the day (or night) they occur, the phase of the moon. People are predictable and criminal activities follow a pattern – understand the patterns and your counter measures will be more accurate, he said.

Manual harvesting and tractor-trailer short haul at Montigny South, Eswatini, maximises jobs from forestry operations. The Montigny Group employs 11 600 people making it one of the biggest employers in Eswatini.

Getting the community on side

Getting the community on their side was a key part of the strategy. Montigny is renowned for their community programmes. They have established an entire village at Bulembu that looks after over 350 orphaned and vulnerable kids, just one of a number of community projects which provide a good foundation upon which to build community relations.

A dedicated K9 team that breeds and trains bloodhounds to track and find anyone engaging in criminal activity on Montigny property has proved to be an extremely effective deterrent to crime and arson, but has also helped get the community on their side. Most of the K9 missions currently undertaken are in fact solving crimes against the communities living in and around Montigny plantations. Crime doesn’t only affect the forestry company – it also affects the communities deeply, and safety and security is high up on their priority of needs.

Now the criminals know that they are not going to get away with it, says Arno. Even if they don’t secure a conviction, the criminals are pointed out and the community knows who the trouble-makers are – they are the same people who start arson fires. Even the police frequently request assistance from the Montigny K9 team. Thus the community has become an ally and a valuable source of intelligence. So much so that the community stepped up and helped the Montigny team protect the plantation during the unrest that swept across Eswatini in 2021.

They also changed the rules around not allowing employees to give people lifts in company vehicles inside the plantations. A small thing, but the spinoff is significant.

“How can you drive past somebody in your company bakkie with Montigny signage on the side who has to walk 10 kilometres to the nearest bus stop, and expect them to support you?” asked Arno.

It’s this kind of thinking that changes mind-sets.

“The people on the ground realise that we are there to help them – not just to make money for ourselves,” said Arno.

Montigny forestry creates local jobs and utilises a network of subcontractors for timber transport and other operations.

 Staff selection and training

Staff selection and training is another key part of the strategy. Dedicated fire teams have very specific tasks and are drilled military-style until they are extremely fit and are experts at their job.

The Montigny team has cancelled their expensive plantation fire camera detection system and have instead established a network of old fashioned fire watch towers with 24-hour surveillance over every inch of the plantation. The tower guards report any smoke detected instantly to the control room, setting in motion a chain of action from highly trained fire-fighting teams that are geared to get to the fire front within 8 minutes.

The fire watch towers also contribute to preventing crime as the guards report any irregular or unscheduled activity in the plantation, which will be followed up and investigated by one of the 300 Montigny field rangers patrolling the plantation.

“We put out any fire that we detect within three kilometres of our boundary,” said Arno. “This is our rule, and there should be no deviation from it.”

A hard lesson was learned in 2019 when a fire was detected outside the Montigny boundary, but within the three km zone. The fire-fighting teams had been busy fighting another fire and were exhausted. Arno was instructed to leave the new fire as it was not in the path of the prevailing wind and was considered low risk. He was told that he was pushing the fire-fighting teams too hard. So he reluctantly left that fire. But the weather turned, the wind picked up and it entered the Montigny plantation and caused extensive damage. Lesson learned!

“You cannot make emotional decisions,” states Arno. The rules are the rules. No deviation.

Montigny fire team at the ready.

Fire boss training

Fire bosses were identified as a key link in the chain of command, and they receive dedicated, customised training. The Montigny team has developed a user-friendly software app that gives fire bosses instant access to critical info about fuel loads, terrain and weather at the fire site, as well as availability and location of fire-fighting teams and equipment, enabling them to make quick, informed decisions.

Arno says that in their experience aerial bombers have not been very effective, especially in the mountainous terrain as they have to drop their water from too high, so they rather rely on ground-based fire-fighting teams backed up with customised fire tenders and bakkie sakkies. Ground crews are needed to mop up after an aerial water drop in any event, so that is where they have invested their resources.

“In the military we know that the air force can give you the initiative, but it’s ground troops that will win you the war,” said Arno.
 
One of the biggest problems encountered by fire-fighters in rugged terrain is that they run out of water at some point, and the fire gets away while the troops are desperately trying to get more water to the fire line. Arno says this is unacceptable – you can’t afford to run out of ammunition in the middle of a battle. He saw a demonstration of a compressed air foam system and realised this could help extend the capacity of their fire-fighting units to extinguish fires. Now the Montigny fire tenders fitted with CAF systems use 10% water to 90% fire retardant foam to douse fires. This allows the water in the fire tender to last much longer, while also making the hoses lighter and easier to handle, allowing fire fighters to reach the fire front faster. He says his teams can deploy a 180 metre fire hose inside a compartment in 1.5 minutes. Speed is everything.

Using 90% fire retardant foam to 10% water turns a 7 000 litre fire tender into a 70 000 litre fire-fighting resource.

He likened the ‘chaos’ of a wildfire to the ‘chaos’ that troops experience during a gun battle.

“We broke down the 'chaos' element into small bits,” said Arno. Each element is analysed, prepared for and practiced over and over.

The Montigny team’s success in stopping wildfires quickly before they get out of control has significantly improved as a result of cool heads, good management and well trained fire-fighters.

However effective fire prevention starts long before the outbreak of an actual fire and involves every aspect of the forestry operation from budget allocation to fire break preparation, fuel load reduction and slash management, access road design and maintenance, personnel selection and training, community relations, equipment selection and availability, vigilance and readiness.

This takes a team effort and total alignment throughout the organisation with very clear objectives, concluded Arno.

Air drying timber at Montigny South, Eswatini. The Montigny team is able to extract maximum value from each and every tree that they harvest due to the diversity of markets that they supply.

Check out the related feature: Mega-fires, politics and the force of nature

Mulcher stops southern Cape wildfire

Quick thinking and quick action by an MTO forester and a mulching contractor stopped the spread of a wildfire that broke out in very old fynbos near Covie in the Western Cape recently.

MTO forester Koos Lourens called Clinton Payn of Savithi Mulching for assistance in stopping the fire that was threatening surrounding areas including rural dwellings and MTO’s Lottering plantation. Savithi has been busy in the area for several months clearing overgrown compartments for MTO that had been damaged in an earlier fire using a Tigercat M726G wheeled mulcher. It was a Sunday when most people are taking it easy, but quick action was needed to stop the fire before it ran away into the old growth fynbos.

Watch the Tigercat mulcher in action as it creates an emergency firebreak...

Aerial support was used to cool the fire down allowing the Savithi team to move in with the Tigercat mulcher to create a firebreak of around 1 km long and around 25 metres wide that ultimately stopped the fire in its tracks. The speed of the large and powerful wheeled mulcher was key in getting the job done quickly before the wind could pick up or change direction and turn it into a really dangerous spreading fire.

Clinton said the fynbos was so dense and high that the operator couldn’t see the ground he was mulching and in some places he had to assess the risks on foot to make sure there were no big holes or rocks that could damage the machine.

According to MTO forester Nico de Waal who was the fire boss, the fynbos in that area is around 25 years old and is well over head high, and creates a very hot fire. He said it is not possible to use ground forces to create a firebreak in those conditions, and so the best option was to bring in the mulcher which reduced the fynbos to a mulch carpet in buffer strips that stopped the fire in a matter of hours.

Nico said that MTO has been busy working with other stakeholders including the Southern Cape and Sarah Baartman FPAs to do block burns in an effort to create strategic fire breaks that would prevent the spread of large, destructive wildfires such as those that occurred in the southern Cape in 2017 and again in 2018. He said that most of the wildfires come from beyond their boundaries and it’s part of their Integrated Fire Management strategy to fight any fire that has the potential to threaten their plantations, wherever they occur.

Clinton said there has been a lot of interest in utilising Savithi’s services to mulch fire breaks and reduce fuel loads in the southern Cape which has been plagued by big, destructive fires over the past few years. Another benefit of mulching is that it opens up areas to allow vehicle access for forestry operations or for fire suppression. Land owners and land managers in the region have realised that proactive action is required to reduce fire risk in this fire-prone landscape.


Discovering the cause and origin of a destructive wildfire

Fire expert Dave Dobson was hired to find the cause and origin of a wildfire that left a swathe of destruction across farms and forestry plantations in the KZN midlands in 2007. Working years after the event, Dave followed the trail of smoke to uncover the origin of the runaway fire that burnt thousands of hectares to a cinder …

The dispute surrounding the ‘Kentucky’ fire of 25th June 2007 that devastated farms and commercial forests in the Curry’s Post area of KwaZulu-Natal has eventually been settled. The fire caused extensive damage to privately owned farms and commercial forest plantations in the area.

As a result of the fire one of the plantation owners instituted legal proceedings against the owners of two properties where the fire was purported to have originated. This case study deals with the case against the second Defendant, the owner of the farm Kentucky.

The challenges
The objective of every fire investigation is to establish the cause and origin of the fire and to determine the ignition sequence.

The first challenge, and one that is regularly encountered in work of this nature, is the fact that I was appointed to investigate the origin and spread of this fire on behalf of the Defendant some seven years after the event (i.e. in 2014).

The Defendant was not a member of the local Fire Protection Association. This raised two issues. The first was that the Defendant was deemed negligent in the event of a fire originating or exiting his property and the onus rested on the Defendant then to prove his innocence. The second issue was that the Defendant was denied access to information held by members of the Fire Protection Association. This was particularly important in respect of the origin of the fire under investigation.

Other issues that contributed to the charge of negligence against the Defendant related to the presence of a compartment of plantation waste/slash located on the boundary between the Defendant’s farm and a neighbouring commercial forest plantation. This was deemed to be a fire risk which contributed to a massive flare-up that resulted in the fire spreading to the Plaintiff’s plantations.

The fires
A number of fires occurred during this period. The first two occurred on the property adjoining Kentucky Farm (St Clair Estate) while the third, as will be shown later, arose on Kentucky Farm. This led unfortunately to the fire becoming known colloquially as ‘the Kentucky Fire’ which was not entirely correct!

The first fire (fire A) occurred on Sunday 24 June 2007. It was extinguished on St Clair Estate (Kentucky’s neighbour) and played no further role in the events that unfolded the following day.

The second fire (fire B) started on the morning of Monday 25 June 2007 on St
Clair Estate and swept through Kentucky Farm fanned by extreme weather conditions.

A third fire (fire C), that was not reported, started on Kentucky Farm during the afternoon of Monday 25 June 2007. This is the fire that resulted in the extensive damage to commercial plantations and farms in the area, which was the focus of this lawsuit.

Data collection
I approached the investigation in a systematic manner beginning with a site visit and an interview with the Defendant. This proved useful in providing circumstantial evidence tracing the progress of the fire through the Defendant’s property. Of particular importance however, was acquainting myself with the overall fire area which was to prove beneficial later in the investigation.

Empirical data was collected in the form of weather data during the time of the fire, interviews and fire reports from various parties who were involved in fighting the fire as well as photographs taken from the spotter aircraft monitoring the fire. A vital piece of evidence was pictures taken of the origin and spread of the fire recorded by Fire Hawk’s locally based fire tower. This information was not readily available to the Defendant since he was not a member of the local Fire Protection Association. However, the picture sequence of the fire was in the public domain as it was being used to conduct Fire Boss Training courses. A simple request for the pictures provided access to this vital piece of information!

In addition, and rather late in the day, an Expert Report was received from the Plaintiff’s legal team.

Cause and origin of the fire
Once the data had been collected and analysed it was possible to develop a hypothesis of the events that occurred on this day. This hypothesis was then subjected to systems analysis to develop a broad understanding of what happened and to avoid linear thinking. This initial hypothesis is depicted in the following diagramme.

In developing this initial hypothesis consideration was given to the summons which suggested that the fire originated from the Sunday night fire (fire A) that had – according to the summons - not been properly extinguished. Various witness statements however refuted this contention. Furthermore, picture evidence obtained from the Fire Hawk camera appeared to indicate that the fire that damaged the Plaintiff’s plantations originated near some homes on the neighbouring St Claire Estate and was the result of a member of the household throwing out ash from the previous night’s hearth fire during the morning of Monday 25 June (fire B).

When examining a problem systematically there are tools in systems thinking that can assist with an enquiry. Systems archetypes are one such tool. As one works with the problem, developing the story, identifying the key variables and sketching them in causal loop diagrams, patterns begin to emerge which provide keys to unlocking parts of the problem. These generic patterns are described in systems thinking as archetypes (Kim, D., H. and Anderson, V. 1998).

A typical “Escalation” archetype now emerges where discarded ash from a previous night’s fire catches alight and starts a fire (fire B). This fire later enters the plantation slash on Kentucky and under deteriorating weather conditions escapes causing havoc to farms and commercial forest plantations down wind. This served as an initial hypothesis for testing against further empirical evidence.

The crucial evidence related to the slash in an old pine compartment located on Kentucky Farm, adjacent to the boundary between Kentucky farm and a neighbouring commercial forestry estate. The trees in this compartment had been clearfelled six years prior to the fire and most of the plantation residue would have decomposed by the time of the fire. Nevertheless the Plaintiff’s Expert presented pictures showing clear lines of fire burning in the old pine compartment which were ascribed to the brush piles having caught alight. The picture also clearly showed a road in the area.

I was aware that no such road existed and began searching for an answer to this conundrum. It turned out that the fire depicted in the photographs was actually burning on a property on the other side of the Curry’s Post road some 1.5 km away! The owner of the property was contacted and confirmation was received that he had in fact cleared and stacked jungle wattle and gum in this area of his farm a few months prior to the fire! The picture of the plantation slash burning that was presented as evidence of negligence on the part of the Defendant was incorrect – the photos were of another property on the other side of the Curry’s Post road.

It was time to test the validity of the evidence of the fire entering and escaping from the old pine compartment on Kentucky Farm.

A closer inspection of the photographic evidence of the fire in the section of Kentucky farm bordering the commercial forest revealed further interesting empirical data. The first was clear evidence – i.e. straight line burns - of firebreak burning in kikuyu camps adjacent to the old pine compartment on Kentucky. Wild fires do not burn in straight lines. From the available photographs it was evident that the party responsible for initiating this firebreak burn lost control of the operation resulting in it entering the old pine slash compartment on Kentucky farm, and subsequently the neighbouring forest where it was brought under control by the land owner. However, the fire in the old pine slash compartment on Kentucky continued to burn. This was fire C.

The events leading to the origin of this fire were never reported, although mention was made in a fire report of drip torches being issued to a helitack ground crew who were dropped in the area in an effort to mop up and contain the fire.

Soon after this, evidence of the fire break between Kentucky and the commercial forest plantation being half burnt indicated a further attempt to contain the fire. The Expert for the Plaintiff (who had previously been contracted by Kentucky’s neighbour to prepare a report on the fire) mentioned the “application of a counter fire along the land owner’s boundary closing up to the main plantation road.”

Clearly there were numerous attempts to introduce counter fires and fire-breaks along this boundary under extreme weather conditions.

At the same time as fire C was burning in the old pine compartment on Kentucky farm, a power failure at the landing strip where the water bombers were refuelling delayed their return to the fire. A further complication arose when weather conditions became too dangerous to fly. Eventually the fire exited the old pine compartment and was driven, out of control, by the extreme weather conditions across many farms before entering the Plaintiff’s commercial pine plantations where extensive damage was experienced.

Final hypothesis
It now becomes possible to develop a final hypothesis describing the fire. This hypothesis is summarised in the diagramme that follows.

Initially as mentioned a preliminary hypothesis was considered which was represented by an “Escalating” archetype: Discarded ash catching alight and resulting in the fire spreading onto Kentucky Farm from whence it enters the slash in the old pine compartment and later spreads to neighbouring farms and forest plantations (fire B).

However, on further investigation a second archetype emerged – a ‘Fixes that Fail’ archetype where an unintended consequence of the use of counter fires or fire-breaks set in an effort to contain fire B, results in the fire escaping and entering the old pine compartment on Kentucky farm from whence, after a delay (indicated by the parallel lines) the fire enters farms and commercial forests causing immense damage (fire C).

An interesting addition to the overall picture is the loop linking Curry’s Post road to the main fire. Pictures of the windrowed plantation slash on a property some 1.5 km away from the Defendant’s farm across the Curry’s Post road from the Defendant was presented as evidence of negligence on the part of the Defendant. This was shown as being clearly incorrect!

Results
After careful consideration of the evidence and interviews with people involved it became clear that the Defendant did not act negligently.
The unintended consequence of trying to “fix” the problem of fire B exiting Kentucky by burning counter fires and fire-breaks on the Defendant’s property is the probable cause of the subsequent damage to farms and forests downwind of Kentucky. This counter fire activity was never reported.

The evidence presented of the extreme fire danger posed by the plantation slash on Kentucky plus the photographic evidence of windrowed slash burning in support of this claim was refuted.
In the end the Plaintiff’s summons was deemed to have no substance and was subsequently withdrawn. The Plaintiff ended up having to pay the Defendant the cost of suit.

References
KIM, D., H., ANDERSON, V. 1998. Systems Archetypes Basics. From Story to Structure. Waltham Massachusetts, Pegasus Communications Inc.

New association for wildland firefighters launched

A new association for Wildland Firefighters has been launched in South Africa. The Association for Wildland Firefighters (AWF) represents the wildland firefighting industry and associated professionals in Southern Africa.

“Numerous investigations into some disastrous fires in Southern Africa highlighted the need for a formal body to represent the needs of the wildland firefighter. The AWF aims to develop the knowledge, skills, understanding and competence of wildland firefighting in South Africa,” says Etienne Du Toit, the chairperson of the AWF.

Du Toit says the organization aims to improve the standards of safety and the working environment for firefighters in the sector in which its members operate.

The Association is registered as an independent, non-governmental, non-profit organisation. Any person or organisation associated with the wildland firefighting/integrated fire management fraternity qualifies to be members.

Du Toit says that climate change has resulted in a significant increase in wildfire risk, not only to responders but also to civilians.

“Monetary losses and other damages as result of these fires annually exceeds hundreds of millions. More needs to be done to address these risks. This is where the AWF comes in, an organisation that aims to share learning in such a manner that it promotes professionalism, reduces responder and civilian risk and at the same time allows for continuous improvement in all aspects of integrated wildfire management.”

The new association specifically addresses the needs of the wildfire fraternity.

“Until now, no other association specifically addressed the needs of the wildfire fraternity, there are similar associations but these are more focused on the structural firefighting sector,” says Du Toit.

The founders of the organisation come from a variety of backgrounds, including the fire service, forestry and conservation sectors and include business development practitioners with vast practical experience in these sectors.

“This Association seeks to enhance synergies between the various entities responsible for wildfire and integrated fire management, and one of the main aims is to professionalise the wildfire fighting industry in SA,” he said.

For more info contact Tessa Oliver at email: info@wildlandfire.org.za

www.wildlandfire.org.za

Preventing fires, planting trees & locking up carbon

A partnership between Fogmaker South Africa and the Platbos Conservation Trust is contributing to the reforestation of the unique Platbos indigenous forest in the Western Cape. What these two very different organisations have in common is a desire to prevent unwanted fires, and a deep concern for the environment.

Platbos, situated between Gansbaai and Hermanus, is Africa’s southern-most indigenous forest. Surrounded by fynbos, cultivated lands and encroaching alien invasive jungles, this unique, ancient forest is under threat and needs active management to survive.

Although it is situated in a fire shadow area, wildfires have over the years been encroaching on the forest margins and threatening this sensitive ecosystem which is rich in biodiversity and contains many ancient trees, some over 1 000 years old.

The Platbos Forest Reforestation Project is an NPO that aims to expand and strengthen the forest by removing alien invasive vegetation from the forest margins and planting indigenous trees that are endemic to the area. This crucial work serves to protect the heart of the forest from encroaching wildfires, promotes biodiversity and sequesters carbon to counter global warming.

Fogmaker South Africa decided to get behind this initiative by donating a tree for every Fogmaker fire suppression system that they install in forestry machines during 2021.

These trees are grown in the Platbos tree nursery before they are planted out in selected areas around the Platbos forest. The Platbos reforestation team follows up, watering the young saplings and doing general vegetation maintenance to ensure their survival

The Fogmaker connection
Fogmaker SA are the licenced distributors and installers of Fogmaker fire suppression systems across Southern Africa.

Fogmaker automatic fire suppression systems are manufactured by Fogmaker International in Sweden. The systems are designed specifically to protect engine compartments of mobile equipment – including forestry equipment – to prevent engine fires that have the potential to destroy expensive equipment, injure the operators, interrupt work schedules and set fire to surrounding vegetation including plantations.

Fogmaker systems attack all three sides of the fire triangle: oxygen, heat and fuel. When triggered by an engine fire the Fogmaker system produces a fine water mist. This water mist vapourises and expands when it comes into contact with any heat source and displaces the oxygen needed to sustain a fire. The water mist, containing a foam additive, discharges for more than 60 seconds and cools down hot surfaces, while forming a protective barrier on the surface of any flammable material, including fuel, to prevent re-ignition.

Fogmaker systems have been installed on a wide range of forestry equipment including harvesters, mulchers, chippers, forwarders and loggers, produced by leading suppliers like Hitachi, Tigercat, TimberPro, CAT, Bell and Pinoth.

See how the Fogmaker system extinguishes a simulated engine fire in seconds...

Hard-working forestry machines are always at risk of fire due to the fact that the fine vegetative material (leaves and sticks) that tend to get caught up in the engine compartments have the potential to catch fire due to extreme heat. The risk is increased as the dry, winter fire season approaches in the summer rainfall areas of South Africa.

Fogmaker SA’s innovative CSI programme aims to support the cause of preventing unwanted wildfires, but also to contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions which are contributing to global warming and climate change.

Since 2008, the Platbos Reforestation Project team has planted some 89 000 trees, with help from organisations such as Fogmaker, thus making a huge contribution to sequestering carbon.

Last year Fogmaker supported the African Honey Bee Project by donating a bee hive for several Fogmaker systems installed in customers’ forestry machines. This is an innovative project that promotes bee farming and honey production among rural communities. It includes training in responsible bee keeping, in particular how to smoke out bee hives without setting fire to the surrounding vegetation. This is a frequent source of wildfires in forestry plantations around SA.

For more info visit:-
www.fogmaker.co.za
www.platbos.co.za
www.africanhoneybee.co.za

Paraquat or not?

Paraquat - widely used in South African forestry to prepare tracer belts before burning firebreaks - is facing world-wide bans, forcing foresters to reach for the old-fashioned hoe. GAYNOR LAWSON reports.

It sounds so benign: “A non-selective herbicide - an aqueous solution contact herbicide for the control of annual grasses and annual broadleaf weeds in crops as listed and as a sugarcane desiccant. Inactivated on contact with the soil.” But this listed herbicide that contains Paraquat, “could have killed 2000 people” when maliciously used by a disgruntled employee to poison a tank of milk in the Cape in 2017, according to a News24 article. It is highly toxic.

Locally, Paraquat is extensively used to create tracer-belts as part of a fire management programme to prevent fires running out of control during the burning of firebreaks. The herbicide creates a boundary area devoid of vegetation before burning takes place. It is considered cost-effective, efficient and useful as it only desiccates the above-ground part of the vegetation (it leaves the root stock below ground unharmed), allowing for regeneration with the rainy season and thus preventing erosion or invasion by alien plants.

First produced for commercial purposes in 1961, Paraquat remains one of the world’s most commonly used herbicides, despite its potentially lethal impact on humans, either through deliberate poisoning or simply by working irresponsibly with it. It may be airborne when applied as a fine spray and can be spread through contact with clothing so it requires special training to ensure safe handling by users.

China reportedly experiences 5,000 deaths from Paraquat poisoning annually, although whether this is through accidental or deliberate poisoning is unconfirmed - Paraquat is known to be used in suicide attempts. It reputedly doubles the risk of Parkinson’s disease in those who come into contact with it, and the Michael J Fox Foundation issued an anti-Paraquat appeal on its website in October last year (the popular actor’s much-publicised battle with Parkinson’s has brought about heightened awareness of the disease): “Take action today to ban Paraquat. Your support can help protect people from environmental exposure to a known pesticide that increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease. We need your help to educate your Senators and Representatives…”

The appeal was posted in response to the reapproval by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of several pesticides (including Paraquat) for use in the United States. The EPA reviews all herbicides and pesticides every 15 years to confirm they are safe for use, based on “assessments of human and environmental impact”. Despite its “well-documented harms”, the use of Paraquat in the United States “is at an all-time high, and it is one of only two pesticides still used in the United States that is either banned or being phased out in the European Union, China and Brazil”, according to the website.

Measures have indeed been put in place to control its availability. It cannot be bought or used in the UK (although, ironically, it is legally manufactured there), Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the European Union (where it has been banned since 2007). It has been banned in Switzerland since 1989 because it is deemed too dangerous for use even when wearing protective clothing and equipment. In the USA, only commercially licensed users have access to it.

A complete international ban is apparently blocked by the US and developing nations whenever this is proposed. According to an article, “Poison on a plate”, which appeared in The Daily Maverick on 26 January this year, “It’s a shocking display of global north hypocrisy, allowing dangerous agrochemical companies to flood low- and middle-income countries for the financial gain and profit of European nations.”

The situation in South Africa
In South Africa, plantations certified under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) may not use Paraquat in any formulation that is available on the market. Gerrit Marais of the FSC Southern Africa Office, says: “Paraquat has been on the FSC Highly Hazardous list since the first pesticide policy was published way back in 2006. The figure below provides information on the reasons why this is done i.e., acute toxicity. Use of the product is thus not limited but prohibited unless it is approved, via a formal FSC process, for temporary emergency use. The South African forestry industry used to have a special derogation (exemption) for the use of this active ingredient and product, but this expired in 2020…Traditionally, the only alternative (to Paraquat) was to hoe the tracers by hand. This is, however, not ideal from an environmental perspective as hoeing often leads to erosion and thus this option – especially on steep slopes - is most undesirable. Some certificate holders have used other systemic herbicides (such as Glyphosate), but here too, the entire plant is killed and the risk of erosion is increased. The South African forestry industry is looking at other options…”

The stance of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS) – which has been endorsed by the other global certification body, PEFC - is that Paraquat can be used for tracer belt preparation, providing strict control/mitigation measures are in place. Steven Germishuizen, SAFAS general manager, says: “SAFAS supports the use of Paraquat from an environmental perspective because it is the best solution for fire management in grasslands. However, we acknowledge that it is highly toxic, so in accordance with our risk-based approach, we insist on strict precautions as far as training, use of PPE and application methods go.”

Craig Norris, NCT Forest Technology Manager, adds: “In addition to what Steve has said, we encourage an integrated approach to chemical use. In other words, the use of agrochemicals is the last choice of action and must be defendable. Agrochemicals can be detrimental to human and environmental health and will only be used after due consideration is given to other options/mitigation measures:
• Chemical control must be used in combination with above methods to minimise quantities used.
• Strategy for reduction of chemical use must be implemented.
• Chemical label specifications must be followed.
• Recommended safety, training, application procedures must be adhered to.

Steven comments: “We also encourage the use of technology, such as drones, to keep people away from the chemical. We strongly encourage exploration into environmentally suitable alternatives that are less toxic.” There is some experimentation with drone spraying currently underway in an attempt to cut humans out of the Paraquat-handling process almost completely.

What is the history behind Paraquat use in SA?
According to Dr John Scotcher of ForestLore Consulting in a report written for the FSC in 2014: “Burning green grass is not possible and, in any event, adversely affects biodiversity. In order to improve the safety aspects of burning firebreaks, a system of fire tracer lines was introduced which entailed the hoeing or ploughing of two parallel strips of vegetation approximately one metre wide (the fire tracer line) and 30 metres apart during the late summer to early autumn. These tracer lines are now devoid of vegetation and are used as lines from which to burn the intervening 30 metres (the firebreak) during winter when the grass is dry.”

The report continues: “Approximately 30 years ago, the use of chemicals was introduced as an approach that could be used where mechanical methods such as hoeing, ploughing or use of a brush-cutter was impractical and dangerous to use … normally on steep and mountainous terrain. Paraquat was first used in South Africa in 1982 by the nature conservation agencies responsible for the management of high-altitude grasslands in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, which is a registered World Heritage Site. The use of Paraquat in this mountainous region enabled the elimination of the historic use of hoed or ploughed tracer lines that resulted in soil loss and scars across the landscape, which even after 100 years are still visible to this day. Paraquat was soon adopted by the agriculture and forestry industry. Paraquat was ideal for use in conservation areas and later in no-till systems such as forestry and grazing lands since it only affects the foliage part of the sprayed plants, thus promoting intact root systems and preventing soil erosion. It also does not leach into groundwater since it is absorbed into clay particles and neutralised when it comes into contact with the soil … In the forestry industry, the use of Paraquat was seen as a best management practice because there was no need to continue with the damaging practice of hoeing or ploughing.”

The Forestry South Africa Environmental Guidelines for Commercial Plantations in South Africa (Version 4 2020, chapter 4) proposes the following approach to the preparation of firebreaks:

  1. Mowing
  2. Slashing
  3. Burning
  4. Desiccant chemicals (Paraquat) – on slopes greater than 20 per cent
  5. Manual hoeing – now discontinued
  6. Mechanical methods (ploughing) – now discontinued

The Wildland Fire Management Handbook for sub-Saharan Africa provides detailed advice on fire protection and advocates the use of ‘chemical surface sprays’ for the preparation of tracer lines i.e. Paraquat.

Paraquat may still be used by the man in the street, although a global shortage because of it being discontinued in many countries has sent prices rocketing. Is there an alternative?

Roger Poole, chairman of the Timber Industry Pesticide Working Group or TIPWG, says: “The forestry industry in collaboration with Professor Keith Little of Nelson Mandela University (NMU) has been researching and testing alternatives for the past nine years since the FSC first indicated that Paraquat would be prohibited. One alternative, pelargonic acid, has shown results similar to Paraquat as a desiccant and was heading for registration under Act 36 of 1947. Unfortunately, the manufacturer was involved with a company buy-out and the new owners changed the formulation of the original product that had been tested. Bridging trials were done to compare the new formulation to the original pelargonic acid; sadly the new formulation did not show favourable results and could not be registered. Glufosinate-ammonium is an active ingredient that is used in agriculture, classed as a partly systemic contact herbicide that is an alternative for tracer preparation - but supervision is imperative as over-application could result in it being more systemic than contact and grass root systems could be severely damaged. TIPWG has stated that Glyphosate formulations should not be used for tracer preparation as this active ingredient could result in a complete kill and thus erosion will occur, especially on steep terrain.”

Dr Scotcher adds in another factor - the human element of the spraying process: “When terrain is steep, the person spraying naturally slows down to navigate safely up or down the hillside, resulting in a higher application rate per unit area.”

Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, Operations and Stewardship Manager for CropLife SA, comments: “There is currently no herbicide with the properties of Paraquat apart from diquat which is also a bipyridinium compound with high toxicity. It is not registered for the purposes of industrial vegetation management like Paraquat is. A possibility is pelargonic acid but the dosage rates required to desiccate plants is much higher than what was originally anticipated and that makes it a very costly option. Furthermore, it is not registered in South Africa. Attempts with many other herbicides have all failed to emulate the effects of Paraquat. Glyphosate is registered for such purposes as making firebreaks but due to its systemicity, it kills plants completely which leads to terrible erosion.”

When asked about the slower progress of workers on steep slopes leading to over-application, he disagrees, saying: “Glyphosate is super-systemic and even with a low dosage (lower than label directions) it will kill plants completely, especially broad-leaved plants. Some of the tough monocotyledons like Cynodon will survive but most of the softer grass species are wiped out completely. Another issue is the problem of resistance development when sub-optimal dosages of Glyphosate are used for chemical mowing; although it is on labels of some Glyphosate-containing herbicides, it is the best catalyst for resistance development I have ever heard of and the crop sector is currently battling with Glyphosate resistance (Amaranthus palmeri, Amaranthus hybridus, Conyza bonariensis, etc).”

Is a total ban an over-reaction?
“People are very quick to point fingers at the use of pesticides but are sadly ignorant of potentially toxic products they use daily at home and, which, if used incorrectly, can be fatal,” says Roger Poole. “Everyone loves coffee, but do they know that the caffeine in coffee's LD50 is 150-200 mg/kg?” {LD50 is the amount of a substance, given all at once, that causes the death of 50% of a group of test subjects; it is a way of determining the short-term poisoning potential or acute toxicity of a substance}.

“So why has no one died from coffee? Simply put, the risk of consuming lethal quantities in your morning cup of java is not possible so the risk of poisoning is reduced. Consider household cleaning detergents, has anyone ever read the label or safety data sheet of the detergents they have in their home? Are these locked away so the uninformed cannot access them? Are certain products kept separately so that they cannot react with each other? Bleach is one of the most commonly used products found in households throughout South Africa, but did you know that if bleach and vinegar come into contact with each other their reaction can cause chlorine gas? Whatever product you are using at home or in the workplace, be it a pesticide or a detergent, they can all be toxic if used or applied incorrectly.” His message is loud and clear - use Paraquat correctly to minimise potential risks!

Is a total ban on Paraquat likely in the near future?
The Rotterdam Convention is scheduled to take place this year, although with the global COVID-19 pandemic, whether it goes ahead is uncertain. Poole says: “Paraquat is one of the many listed active ingredients for consideration to be banned worldwide and has been listed numerous times but never seems to be banned due to pressure from the large world economies. We wait in anticipation for the outcome, as we've done in the past.”

A year later on…
It’s a year since an article entitled 'Weaning the forestry industry from its paraquat reliance' by Jacqui Meyer appeared in SA Forestry magazine. According to the article, “the next step is applying for an Emergency Registration under Act 36 of 1947, which Dr Gerhard Verdoorn of CropLife SA is currently assisting TIPWG with. With CropLife’s support and the information obtained from the bridging trials, we hope to have pelargonic acid available for the 2021 summer rainfall area fire season.”

Well, that was in March 2020, and in April 2021, Dr Verdoorn was doubtful about the predictions - for this fire season at least. “I am not sure this is going to materialise… if we are able to get our hands on pelargonic acid. It is quite expensive … and I wonder if it will make the grade for the timber industry.”

In the meantime, creating tracer belts using mechanical methods such as brush-cutters and tractor-operated grass-slashers is the norm, with some landowners and companies using Glufosinate-ammonium. “It’s been very difficult, with manual clearing and a return to traditional hoeing on flat terrain,” says Simon Thomas, Operations Manager for KZN FPA. So, what will the situation be by next year’s fire season? Is a total switch to drone-spraying a feasible option? Only time will tell.