The 2018/19 fire season has become known as one of the most overwhelming in the history of the Overberg. While more than 30 wildfires burned during the season, 20 of these were very damaging and very costly.Greater Overberg Fire Protection Association (goFPA).

It is reported that in the first three months of the 2018/9 summer, the Overstrand Municipality had to spend R9 348 000 on fighting wildfires. A damaging peat fire in the Hemel-en-Aarde wetlands near Camphill has only just been extinguished six months later, with devastating effects on both the environment and the Camphill community.

A fynbos fire can be good or bad. It is bad when it is a wildfire fuelled by hot conditions, senescent fynbos, alien vegetation and a strong wind – and threatens human-made infrastructure as well as fynbos that is less than 10 years old. It is good when there is little wind, the fynbos is older than 10 years, the wet season is at hand and plans are in place to control the fire if so required. 

We have long known that wildfires are necessary for the fynbos biome to function healthily – that includes both the smaller annual fires and the major wildfires that occur every decade or so. The wildfires are part of the natural fire regime of fynbos vegetation, which has been growing here for millions of years. Fynbos is not just adapted to fire, but also dependent on it. Fire returns nutrients to the soil in the form of ash, thus promoting regeneration of fynbos biodiversity. 

However, there is a conundrum. Fynbos should burn every 10 to 20 years, but human settlements should not.

Rapid urbanisation and an influx of residents to towns and cities have brought urban areas into ever closer contact with nature. More people are accessing these natural areas, whilst settlements increasingly spread into the wildlands. Increased interaction and proximity to the wildlands is contributing to the rise in fire incidents. 

Cape Aflame is an in-depth case study of wildfire in the Western Cape. It states: “The problem is that the urban and the wildland are incompatible… whereas fire cannot be tolerated in our urban areas, it is to be welcomed in the wildland surrounding us.

“What can we do to reduce the conflicts on the wildland-urban interface? Prescribed burns are essential as they create more manageable conditions and can help to establish a mosaic of vegetation. Planned fires can be controlled and contained more closely, so that they are carried out when the wind isn’t raging on the hottest day.”

The implementation of an integrated, long-term fire strategy can help maintain a patchwork of vegetation at various stages of development to break up large-scale fires. This can help to prevent big swathes of established, dense and more fire-prone bush from going up in flames.

The Overstrand Municipality’s fire department and environmental section are presently working together on such a strategy for municipal land. 

According to fire ecologist, Dr Brian van Wilgen, “saying ‘no’ to wildfires is not really an option in the middle of a fire-prone fynbos ecosystem, so we need to find ways to manage and deal with wildfires more effectively. As we alter the natural fire regime through intervention and instigation, so we stoke the problems of increasing the frequency, ferocity and scale of damaging fires. 

“The negative consequences of uncontrollably large and frequent, or unseasonal, wildfires go beyond the flora and fauna. Ordinary people and fire-fighters have died in uncontainable wildfires, homes have been destroyed and millions of ratepayers’ rands have gone into fighting fires. 

“We are starting fires when we shouldn’t, living up against the mountains and amidst vegetation designed to burn, treating nature as a pristine commodity that should not burn and not starting controlled fires when we should, then fuelling the fires with invasive plants that burn too hot. Perhaps it is time to ask what we can do differently, considering that humans are the main disturbance and the main complainant in this wildfire equation.”

Johan Montgomery, Vineyard Manager of Hamilton Russell VineyardsAshbourne Vineyards, will give a talk  on ‘The Anatomy of a Prescribed Ecological Burn’ at The Green House of Whale Coast Conservation on Tuesday 16 July at 17:30. In addition to managing the vineyards, Johan is also responsible for the environmental and ecological wellbeing of the farms. Both vineyards are WWF Conservation Champion members.

Johan explains:  “As part of the team tasked with establishing the local Fire Protection Association, I learnt the value of controlling alien vegetation, the landowners’ responsibility associated with this, and the benefits of prescribed burns.”

In this talk Johan will unravel for us the meticulous planning and execution that goes into a prescribed ecological burn and why this approach has become part of modern sustainable farming practice.

About the Author

Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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