Runaway veld fires move through landscapes at an astonishing pace – destroying property, natural habitat and sometimes even lives.
These risks were highlighted once again recently with the devastating fires in the Southern Cape and in California, USA, – when large, uncontrolled veld fires swept through areas causing massive large-scale destruction. 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 fulfill 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 you do not have or only have a limited number of trained staff, contact your local FPA to assist with advice on achieving compliance.
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.
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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 your fire breaks as well as access roads and have an emergency procedure in place. Make sure it is communicated to all staff. 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 effected 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 the 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. “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.”
- Firebreaks do not stop or prevent fires – they simply create access points to fight fires from.
- Farm gates should be wide enough for fire engines to pass through.
- All housing and other buildings on farms should have fire clearance roads right around.
Louise Wessels, Manager at the Greater Overberg FPA says that effective communication is crucial during a veld fire. In an emergency situation, there is no time for discord, therefore, make an effort to get you to know your local fire brigade team. Invite them to your farm, make sure your coordinates are accurate and establish good relations before the fire season starts. Often landowners know their terrain best and can give valuable information to the fire chief on duty. Fire-fighters work according to an Instant Command System – it is standard methodology and landowners should let them do their jobs and make informed decisions. To fight fires effectively we need cooperation.
FPAs have access to aerial support made available by the government’s Working on Fire programme. Aerial support is on standby during the annual fire season.
It costs approximately R50 – 60 000 per hour if you need to hire a water helicopter to help fight fires (excluding support costs). Also, note that landowners should get paperwork associated with air support sorted out before the fire season starts, says Wessels. “For instance, they need to receive a signed copy application asking for air support before they will dispatch a helicopter. Make sure that you keep that easily accessible in an office or keep a signed e-version on your cell phone including all emergency numbers.”
- 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 association (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.
- Make sure that you have effective fire insurance; with fire suppression insurance you are covered for air support, should you need it.
- Make sure houses on the farm are fireproof with large areas cleared around all buildings.
Checklist for producers
- Have you joined a Fire Protection Agency?
- Is your alien clearing up to date?
- Do you have a good fire management plan in place?
- Have you identified the high-risk areas on the farm?
- Are your firebreaks maintained?
- Do you have an emergency fire procedure?
- Is your fire-fighting equipment serviced and ready to use?
- Is your insurance up to date and comprehensive?
- Do you have a list with emergency numbers to phone?
- Do you have a comprehensive aerial map of your farm?
For more about fire management visit www.capenature.co.za and look for their Landowner’s Guide to Fire Management.