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.
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.
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:-
|YEAR||HECTARES DAMAGED BY FIRE||ARSON FIRES|
|2015 (new system introduced)||18.4 ha||19|
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out the related feature: Mega-fires, politics and the force of nature