Following the devasting fires that destroyed some 50 homes in the Overstrand in January this year, the municipality is planning on instituting a policy to create and maintain fire-wise erven in urban and suburban areas.
According to the draft policy, now open for public participation, the objectives include:
- Prevention of the outbreak and spread of fire by removing and reducing fire hazards presented by an overgrowth of combustible vegetation on erven, irrespective of the type of vegetation.
- Providing identification of fire hazards on all vacant erven within the urban areas.
- Enabling the process of notifying owners of the fire hazards and their obligation to comply with the relevant legislation.
- Ensuring that fire hazards are controlled and reduced in accordance with prescribed standards.
The policy excludes properties managed by the Municipal Environmental Management Services Department, that are areas of conservation concern.
Comments on this subject, from a public participation process held in August 2018, have been included in the revised draft version of the policy. According to the draft policy, the regulations are specific to municipal and privately-owned vacant land within the urban edge.
“The Community Fire Safety By-law, in relation to overgrown vegetation, makes no distinction between alien and endemic/indigenous vegetation. This policy is enacted to provide the municipality and landowners with the minimum standards and guidelines for managing and controlling the fire hazards presented by overgrown erven, and also to initiate mechanisms to combat the proliferation of combustible vegetation on vacant erven, in order to mitigate or remove the threat and danger of fires in residential areas,” states the draft policy.
It further conveys the message that all municipal officials and contractors, as well as all residents and landowners, will be subject to the contents of this policy. “All landowners are obligated, in terms of Articles 34 and 58 of the Community Fire Safety By-law, to maintain their vacant erven in such a manner that the land is in a satisfactory condition, as determined by the chief fire officer, and that it does not present a fire hazard to the surrounding environment and community.
“Landowners are obligated to comply with the standards determined by the municipality. Only manual clearing methods will be used for reducing fire hazards in areas proclaimed as protected, while mechanical clearing will be permitted in other areas.”
Manual clearing is achieved using hand tools such as bow saws; pruning scissors; motor-operated, hand-held chainsaws or motor-operated, hand-held brush cutters. Mechanical clearing is performed using industrial-driven, motorised lawn mowers or tractor-drawn bush cutters (bossiekappers). Landowners using bush cutters are encouraged to consider the protection of animals and natural vegetation.
According to the draft policy fire breaks, cleared of combustible material, will be created within the urban edge in order to assist in preventing fires from spreading, and to provide the necessary access for firefighting vehicles to control fires.
Areas such as roadside verges, public gardens, parks, fire breaks or sports/playing fields, where continuous maintenance takes place, are also subject to compliance with the minimum standards of this policy.
The draft policy states that any delegated official of the Overstrand Fire, Rescue and Disaster Management Service is empowered to enter any erf to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Community Fire Safety By-law, and to order the removal of any hazard if it is found to violate any fire-safety standards.
“Officials with delegated authority for the identification of fire hazards shall have the final decision on the standard of clearing of an erf; and as to when, and how, an erf shall be cleared.
“Compliance notices will be served on landowners by registered mail and will only be sent via email as a courtesy where accurate contact information is provided to the municipality. A clearing-compliance notice period of 28 working days, in the case of owners who reside in South Africa, and 40 days, in the case of owners who reside beyond the borders of South Africa, will apply in respect of the removal of hazardous conditions prescribed by this policy.”
The draft policy states that failure to comply with the requirements of a clearing notice will result in remedial or legal action. Fines and imprisonment may be imposed by the Hermanus Additional Court.
“Should it be necessary for the municipality to take remedial action, the full cost will be recoverable from the landowner. The recoverable costs will include the actual cost of the contractor’s service and the administrative fee, as determined in the municipal tariff structure. The relevant amounts will be billed against the defaulting owner’s municipal account.”
The policy is open for public comment. Copies can be obtained at all local libraries or on the municipal website, under the ‘strategic documents’ tab. The closing date for comments is 16 June 2019.
Prescribed standards for clearing vegetation
Contractors appointed by the municipality for the clearing of erven are not permitted to use any herbicides on private erven but can, under the direction of the relevant municipal departmental manager, use herbicides to control invasive species on municipal property.
The clearing of vegetation that constitutes a fire hazard must comply with the following standards:
- All erven shall be cleared of all dead wood and any other combustible material not associated with the growth of vegetation.
- All invasive, alien vegetation must be cut down and removed. Remaining stumps may be treated with herbicide, at the discretion of the landowner, to prevent re-growth.
- Grass and indigenous ground-covering plant species must be maintained at a maximum height of 500 mm.
- The area around trees must be cleared of growth to a minimum height of 1.5 m on the underside of the canopy with all ground-level deadwood removed from the area around trees.
- On erven that are surrounded by 1.8 m or higher boundary walls, the density of indigenous vegetation must be reduced by a minimum of 50%; and vegetation must be cut down to at least 50 mm below the top level of the walls.
- On properties larger than the standard-sized, single-residential erven, adequate fire breaks must be provided as determined by the chief fire officer.
- Erven that are located within 50 m of thatched-roof structures must always be cleared of vegetation to the minimum standard, irrespective of vegetation species and location, with the exception of trees that must be trimmed.
- The clearing of erven must be done in a manner that does not contribute to soil erosion.
- All vegetation refuse, produced during the clearing process, must be removed and may not be left on an erf or on the verge for longer than three days.
- Cuttings may be chipped into pieces not larger than 100 mm x 100 mm in size, which may be removed, or distributed over the cleared erf; but may not be left as heaps that would give rise to spontaneous combustion.
- It is recommended that private landowners make use of the registered contractors available on the municipal database as they are aware of the minimum requirements.
The following minimum requirements are applicable to erven located in proclaimed biospheres and other protected areas:
- Remove all combustible dead wood and any other ground-level fire hazards.
- Retention of desired trees is subject to their being cleared of growth from ground level to a minimum height of 1.5 m below the canopy.
- Thin out the density of vegetation by a minimum of 50% across the area of the erf.
- Provide for a safe distance between the vegetation and any structures on abutting erven by making certain that the vegetation does not encroach over the standard 2-m building or other scheme lines.
- Maintain grass and indigenous ground-covering plant species at a maximum height of 500 mm.
Milkwood trees are protected in terms of the National Forests Act. Pruning of the canopy of these trees is permitted to a maximum of 25% only, but topping is not permitted. No topping or excessive pruning, for example, to ensure sea views, are permitted.
Pruning of milkwood trees from ground level to a maximum height of 1.5 m will be considered to meet the allowable 25% beneath the crown, and may be necessary where the trees provide potential cover for illegal activities – if they are located on erven within the urban and suburban areas – but no pruning shall take place where these trees are part of a natural forest along the coastline, in green belts and in proclaimed reserve areas.
The destruction of protected trees, or natural forest, or any other protected/endangered plant species, without a permit obtained from the relevant controlling authority, is a criminal offence.