By Jorisna Bonthuys
Runaway veld fires move through landscapes – destroying property, natural habitat and sometimes even lives.
These risks were highlighted once again last summer when large, uncontrolled veld fires swept through parts of the Boland, causing major and very expensive losses on some farms.
As summer approaches, local fruit producers should fine-tune their management strategies to manage the risk of runaway fires, especially in the fynbos region. Late summer is peak fire season in the Western Cape.
The hot, dry days and a gale-force southeaster could cause tinder-dry vegetation to react to any spark. This can cause a major fire hazard for orchards, infrastructure and livelihoods during the busy harvest season.
Increasing infestations of alien vegetation and climate change – causing hotter and drier periods – are exacerbating the situation. Not only have the last few years seen a steady increase in the number of fires and the areas burnt, but certain areas are repeatedly being burnt – well beyond their natural cycles.
What can producers do?
As a landowner, you are responsible for the prevention and management of all fires that occur on your land, in terms of the National Veld and Forest Act 101 of 1998.
If you and your neighbours form a Fire Protection Association (FPA), it will help you to comply with these regulations. An FPA is basically an organisation formed by landowners to predict, prevent, manage and help fight wildfires in a particular area.
According to Justin Lawrence from CapeNature, “FPAs help members by coordinating activities before, during and after fires, and over the period of the fire season.” These associations that are registered in terms of the Act, help their members to fulfil their legal responsibilities by providing advice and guidance on how to reduce the wildfire risks.
FPAs also provide management services, training and support for communities, in their efforts to manage and control wildfires. According to the Act you must have trained personnel available to fight wildfires. If these people are not agri-workers, you have to appoint an agent to manage fire- fighting on your behalf.
The main advantage of an FPA is that no presumption of negligence can be used in civil proceedings due to fire damage if you belong to an FPA, even if the fire started on your property. Furthermore, resources can be combined more effectively with other landowners to manage fires more effectively. Firebreaks can also be placed where it is best for the area as a whole, not just for one property.
“Clearly, the easiest way to avoid the presumption of negligence is to then become a member of an FPA,” says Lawrence.
What else can growers do?
Make sure you keep up your alien clearing efforts, advises Joan Isham, WWF-SA’s extension officer working closely with fruit and wine farmers.
“Have a good fire management plan in place and be sure you have identified the high-risk areas on the farm and have preventative measures in place.
“Maintain you fire breaks as well as access roads and have an emergency procedure in place. Make sure it is communicated to all staff,” she adds.
“Also, remove alien vegetation on the farm as alien infested areas pose a higher fire risk than the indigenous fynbos. After a fire, in areas where there were heavy alien infestations, you have a window of opportunity to clear alien vegetation at a much lower cost.”
What about legislation and fires?
The legal context is complex, with overlapping mandates in some areas.
The Act is administered by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). The Act is specific to wildfires and outlines the responsibilities and mandates of both public and private bodies in respect of wildfires, covering both their ignition and the conditions under which they are able to spread.
FPAs, acting within their fire management and business plans, policies, rules and regulations, are the primary institutions regulating the relationship between different landowners, whether private or public, and between landowners and regulatory bodies, but this must be affected within the framework set by other legislation.
Lawrence explains, “The Act does this by providing, inter alia, for the establishment of FPAs and the adoption of a fire danger rating system. It creates specific duties around fire prevention and fighting fire. It also provides for the designation by the Minister of a body as a fire brigade service. In some areas FPAs have been designated as this service.”
“Ultimately, the success of effective fire management is dependent upon landowners taking responsibility for fires on their properties,” he says. “The Act places the responsibility for fire management on landowners. A landowner in the Act is defined as any owner, tenant, administrator or manager of the land.
“Conservation authorities are not the local fire service. Like all property owners and managers, they are also subject to the relevant fire legislation and must react to all fires on or threatening their property.”
Fire-fighting is conducted according to the Fire Brigade Services Act and remain the responsibility of the various district municipalities, depending on the area in which your property is situated. The local district municipality’s fire services are responsible for combating veld fires in support of property owners.
What about firebreaks?
The National Veld and Forest Fire Act states that owners must pay attention to weather, climate, terrain and vegetation in deciding how to prepare a firebreak.
Every property must have a system of firebreaks in place. The breaks must be on the boundary of the property unless there is an exemption granted by the Minister or an agreement with the adjoining landowner that the firebreak can be located somewhere else within an FPA.
Firebreaks must be located strategically to control the spread of wildfires, but they mainly serve as an access road from which to fight a fire. A sensible fire break width is no wider than 10m in most fynbos and renosterveld vegetation areas and must not be burnt during times when there is a high fire risk. Says Isham, “It is often preferable to simply have a ‘tracer belt’ of 2–3 meter to allow quick access and an opportunity to use a ‘back burn’.”
Owners should ensure that fire breaks are positioned and prepared in such a way as to cause the least disturbance to soil and biodiversity. “Fire belts should not be bulldozed or ploughed – this triggers the environmental impact assessment regulations in all critically endangered and endangered vegetation types. If brush-cut only, many of the indigenous species will survive and the risk of erosion will be decreased.”
NOTE: firebreaks do not stop or prevent fires – they simply create access points to fight fires from.
FPAs have access to planes made available by the government’s Working on Fire programme. These planes are on standby during the annual fire season.
It costs approximately R25 000 per hour if you need to hire a private water helicopter to help fight fires (excluding supporting costs).
What to do in case of fire
- Phone the fire and rescue services, your neighbours and the local FPA.
- Call 112 from a cellphone or 10177 from a landline (toll-free).
- If you are a member of an FPA, contact your relevant fire protection officer.
If you are in the veld and you see that a fire has started, move away from it immediately. Never ignore a fire, even if it seems far away – it can quickly become large and engulf you. The most dangerous situation to be in is when a veld fire is moving up a steep slope, and you are above it with bush and grass between you and the fire.
If you feel threatened and you don’t think you can outrun the fire, or if you are surrounded, then find a ‘safe zone’. This can be an area that has already been burnt, or is completely clear of any fuel that can burn, such as a wide road or an old homestead.
More about the National Veld and Forest Act (101 of 1998)
Legally, the Act imposes a number of duties on individual landowners that are intended to reduce the harm from wildfires:
- You may not start a wildfire (s18).
- You may only start a fire, including a cooking or braai fire, in a designated area.
- You must have equipment available to fight wildfires (s17).
- You must have trained personnel available to fight wildfires (s17).
- You must have a person on the property who keeps a lookout for fires (s17).
- You must establish a system of firebreaks (s12).
- You may not burn firebreaks or carry out controlled burns when the Fire Danger Index (provided by the SA Weather Service) is high or the FPA has objected to such burning taking place.
- You must manage the fuel load on land under your control. This means that you must remove invasive alien vegetation from the land, as well as other vegetation that creates unwanted fuel loads.
- If a person bringing a civil claim against a landowner proves that:
- He or she suffered loss;
- The loss was caused by a wildfire; and
- The wildfire started on or spread from land owned by the landowner;
- The landowner against whom the claim is made is presumed to have acted negligently in relation to the wildfire unless:
- The landowner proves that he or she was not negligent; or
- The landowner is a member of an FPA in the area where the fire occurred, in which case the person bringing the claim must prove that he or she was negligent.
- Ensure that fire-fighting equipment is maintained and in good working order before the start of each fire season.
- Obtain the necessary permits and inform property neighbours, your fire protection agency (FPA) and local municipality fire officers of your intention to burn at least two weeks prior to the event. If you need to do controlled burns, do it in April or May to reduce the risk of runaway fires.
- Keep accurate records of fires, using a map of veld age as a basis. Note the date and time of ignition, weather conditions, etc.
- Guard an extinguished fire for at least two days after a burn.
- Do not allow livestock to graze natural areas in the winter and spring following a fire. Many of the renosterveld bulbs and annuals are vulnerable to grazing pressures in the first two years after a fire.
Source: Joan Isham, WWF-SA.
City of Cape Town
021480 7700 from a cellphone or 107 from a landline
Eden District Municipality
044 805 5071
Overberg District Municipality
028 425 1690
West Coast District Municipality
022 433 8700
Central Karoo District Municipality
023 414 2603
Cape Winelands District Municipality
021 887 4446
Useful contact details
- Greater Cederberg FPA (Porterville region)
- Cape Peninsular FPA (Cape Town region)
021 689 7438
- Winelands FPA (Stellenbosch region)
021 888 5821
- Greater Overberg FPA (Bredasdorp region)
- Southern Cape FPA (Knysna region)
- WWF-SA’s Fruit & Wine Initiatives
Joan Isham or Shelly Fuller
021 882 9085
- For fire-fighting training and assistance with prescribed burns:
021 862 8457
More information on fires and regulations
- Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
- Working on Fire
- Fire Wise
- Fire Stop
Checklist for producers
- Have you joined a Fire Protection Agency? Yes/No
- Are your alien clearing efforts up to date? Yes/No
- Do you have a good fire management plan in place? Yes/No
- Have you identified the high-risk areas on the farm? Yes/No
- Are your firebreaks maintained? Yes/No
- Do you have an emergency fire procedure? Yes/No
For more about fire management visit www.capenature.co.za and look for their Landowner’s Guide to Fire Management.