South Africa: Fire Situation (IFFN No. 25)

Fire Situation in South Africa

(IFFN No. 25, July 2001, p. 105-111)

Fire environment, fire regimes, the ecological role of fire


Natural forests in South Africa cover less than 1 percent of the total area, and fire plays an important role on the edges of these forest communities. However, wildfires seldom penetrate the larger patches of mature forest, although charcoal within the soil profiles of some forests indicates that fires may occur in natural forests at intervals of several hundreds of years (Huntley 1984).

Industrial forests, such as even-aged Acacia, Eucalyptus and Pinus plantation stands, cover an area of approximately 1.5 percent of South Africa, and have mostly been established in the higher rainfall areas of the Grassland Biome of the Summer Rainfall Region. These forests are regularly exposed to wildfire damage, because of the fire history of the host vegetation, and the fire history of the countries of tree origin. Until 1990 fire was mostly excluded from these forests. More recently slash burning after clearfelling and prescribed burning under trees for fuel reduction purposes are now established management tools. These prescribed fires are being applied at a limited, but increasing, scale.

Other wooded land

The Fynbos Biome falls under this category, where trees are rare, but the vegetation is dominated by evergreen sclerophyllous heathlands and shrublands (Huntley 1984). This Biome covers approximately five percent of the land area of the country. Fynbos communities generally require four to six years to accumulate sufficient fuel to burn and fires occur at random within 6 to 40 year rotations (Kruger 1979). Prescribed burning is applied in most fynbos communities, but during the 1990’s prescribed burning programmes have been reduced for various reasons, such as to allow more natural fire occurrence. Another reason for fewer prescribed fires is the reduction in the availability of experienced fire managers who can apply block-burning correctly (own observations).

Other land

The remaining vegetated land of South Africa includes these categories: Grassland (24 percent), Arid Savannah Biome (24 percent) and Moist Savannah Biome (9 percent). These estimations have been rounded off to make provision for plantation forests. As yearly biomass production differs significantly within these biomes, fire rotations vary likewise (from 1 to 15 years), and these rotations are also exposed to seasonal variation. Winter burns normally occur after moisture stress and frost sets in during autumn.

Fire is an infrequent, but significant phenomenon in the Arid Savannah Biome, normally occurring after above-average rainfall has been recorded, and subsequently a higher biomass production was experienced. In the Moist Savannah Biome fire occurs more frequently at approximately five-year intervals, but as common as annually in places during some seasons (Huntley 1984).

A recent paper by van Wilgen et al. (2000) analyses the fire history of the Kruger National Park (1.9 million ha) for different periods in the park’s history, where fire protection was followed by prescribed burning and then a “natural” (lightning) fire policy. Fires covering 16.79 million ha occurred between 1941 and 1996 (16 percent of the area burning each year on average). Of this area, 5.15 million ha burnt between 1941 and 1957, when limited prescribed burning and protection from fire took place (16 percent burning each year on average). Between 1957 and 1991, 2213 prescribed burns covering 5.1 million ha (46.3 percent of the 10.98 million ha burnt during that period) were carried out.

Lightning fires burnt 2.5 million ha between 1957 and 1996, or 21.6 percent of the area. The mean fire return period was 4.5 years, with intervals between fires from 1 to 34 years. The distribution around the mean was not symmetrical and the median fire interval was 3.1 years. Some areas burnt more often than others, and mean fire return periods ranged from 2.7 to 7.1 years in the 11 major land systems of the park. Fires occurred in all months, but 59 percent of all fires took place from September to November. Prescribed burns were concentrated late in the dry season (September to November). Lightning fires were later, with 84.7 percent of the area burning between September and January (see also van Wilgen et al. 1998, Brocket et al. 2000).

Major wildfires experienced during 1990 – 2000, and their impacts


Compared to the year 1989 – which was a year that saw some serious wildfires in Industrial Forests – 1990 and 1991 saw a steady increase in the number of fires experienced in Kwazulu-Natal, from 210 during 1989, to 350 during 1990 and to 510 during 1991. The Fire Danger Index (FDI) only reached one day of extreme fire danger (a red day) during 1990 and one day during 1991. Large forest fires were not recorded during these years.


In 1992, a serious drought occurred in most of the Summer Rainfall Regions in the North and East of South Africa. Subsequently, the number of fires reported in the forest regions of these provinces increased to 792, but surprisingly losses from wildfires were less than during 1991, and only 9 333 ha of industrial forests were lost (Meikle et al. 1993). In 1993, no major fire events were recorded.


A few serious wildfires occurred in industrial forests and in surrounding grassland in the Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal Provinces. Towards October 1994, three major plantation wildfires raged in the Sabie District, destroying more than 1 000 ha in each case. During one fire in a SAFCOL plantation in the area, ten firefighters lost their lives when the fire spotted around the team inside Pinus and Eucalyptus stands. Two firefighting vehicles were also burned out in the process, and combined losses for the district in terms of timber losses exceeded US$1 million.


During the dry winter season, some serious grassland wildfires were experienced in the Eastern Free State, while in one fire 5 500 ha of timber plantations were destroyed in the Melmoth District of the Kwazulu-Natal Province. Surprisingly no lives were lost.

During December 1995 a bushfire spotted into a heap of 15 000 tons of sulphur belonging to an explosives and chemical company near Cape Town, and a local community was overwhelmed by the toxic fumes. Two thousand five hundred people had to be evacuated, and 500 patients had to be treated in the trauma unit of the nearby hospital. Two persons died. The fumes also affected nearby agricultural crops through direct scorching of leaves.


Numerous grassland fires were reported in the Summer Rainfall Region of SA, but higher than average rainfall prevented serious moisture deficiencies from occurring, and subsequently area burned remained relatively small. During both years rainfall days extended well into the June/July period, and long seasonal drought was avoided.


A dry summer prevailed in the Cape Regions. An early start of hot Bergwind conditions during March/April caused extreme fire weather conditions in these areas in the Fynbos Biome, and in some adjoining Industrial Forests. Two serious fires occurred in the Tsitsikamma Region. In one of them 60 000 ha of fynbos were burned and 4 000 ha of industrial forests were destroyed. Six people lost their lives in this fire and 250 were left homeless. Damage to standing timber alone exceeded US$1 million. The ecological impact of this fire on the fire-adapted fynbos was not that serious, although some of the older fynbos sub-communities experienced excessive fire temperatures that may have led to some localised erosion problems on steep slopes.

In the Summer Rainfall area the fire season started extremely early in April. By May 30 000 ha of grassland grazing areas were lost in wildfires in the Eastern Free State, and one fire blackened 20 000 ha of a nature reserve in the region. Another wildfire burned most of the grassland in a Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga. A tragic loss of life occurred indirectly as a result of a grassland fire in the Gauteng Province during June. Twenty people lost there lives in a traffic pile up caused by thick smoke on a highway from a nearby grassland fire.

Also in the Summer Rainfall area, four people lost there lives in one of the numerous grassland wildfires in Mpumalanga, while wildfires in industrial forests caused losses exceeding 1 000 ha of standing timber in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga Provinces, and in Swaziland. In the NW Province, where wildfires are seldom experienced, a grassland fire burned down some farms and homesteads and killed two policemen.


In the Southern Cape and Tsitsikamma regions, more wildfires burned through thousands of ha of fynbos vegetation, burning down homesteads in the Plettenberg Bay area, as well as a few thousand ha of timber plantations and farmland. These fires occurred during extremely dry Bergwind conditions. In the Summer Rainfall area, most wildfire damage – in the form of grazing area lost and timber plantations damaged – were experienced in Swaziland.


During January 2000, the Cape Peninsula was devastated by a serious fynbos wildfire, which burned 8 000 ha of fynbos vegetation in that area. Elsewhere in the Western Cape Province an additional 10 000 ha of fynbos burned. In the Cape Metropolitan area 70 houses were damaged or destroyed by the fire and 200 shacks of an informal settlement were also razed in the process. Total fire suppression costs exceeded US$3 million, while insurance claims are expected to exceed US$0.5 billion. No lives were lost.

Fire database

Additional databases are not available. For fire data in the grassland and savannah biomes the reader is kindly referred to the overview summary on fire in sub-Saharan Africa.

Operational fire management organization

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) is responsible for the provision, management and administration of the 1998 National Veld and Forest Fire Act, and the support of Fire Protection Associations (FPAs). DWAF will not play a direct firefighting role or duplicate the work of fire management agencies.

Fire prevention is normally regarded to be the responsibility of the landowners, guided by DWAF and the new National Veld and Forest Fire Act. However, there is still a lack of regional co-ordination in this field. Certain exceptions exist where integrated regional fire protection plans have been implemented: the Mpumalanga Highveld, in the Melmoth District of the Kwazulu-Natal Region, and in the NE Cape. Local (private and state) fire management bodies in Industrial Forests, Agricultural Regions and Nature Reserves are normally responsible for their own fire prevention measures.

Early warning, fire detection and monitoring systems are extensively used in Forestry regions, and these are mostly managed by private forestry concerns. Elsewhere in South Africa detection systems, such as fire towers and other early warning systems, are seldom used.

In most provinces the firefighting role is conducted and controlled by Regional Services Fire Brigades in rural areas, assisted by Municipal Firefighting Units in Metropolitan districts. In some areas these efforts are being assisted by certain Central Government bodies, such as the Defence Forces, particularly when wildfires expand to disastrous sizes. Local forestry organisations and agricultural bodies also assist in fighting fires in certain regions, depending on the dominant land-use of these regions.

The most important forestry firefighting organisations in South Africa are the Forest Fire Association (FFA) based in Nelspruit, the Zululand Fire Protection Association (ZFPA) and the Natal Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Although spontaneous firefighting support from local communities has been recorded during some wildfires, no major voluntary firefighting organisations exist in South Africa.

Fire research

Some fire research in South African Natural Biomes is being maintained under the umbrella of universities, nature conservation bodies and forestry companies. However, during the 1990s there was a marked decrease in these activities, compared to fire research conducted during the 1980s. It was particularly in the formal Agricultural and Forestry Sectors that there has been a marked decline in fire research funding and this has had a particularly negative effect on some longer-term research venues, which were in many cases shelved or terminated.

During 1999, however, there is a more positive approach to fire management in general in South Africa, with some training institutions now in the process of restructuring their fire management/ecology curricula (such as at the Forestry Training Centre of the PE Technicon at Saasveld). Some fire research programmes are also re-considered.

 Use of prescribed fire

Forestry (industrial forests)

Slash burning after clearfelling even-aged stands is a common practice, particularly where heavy slash from tree crowns make re-establishment of trees a costly operation. However, where slash is not forming serious obstacles, e.g. steep slopes occur or where nutritional problems occur (such as on poor sandy soils), slash burning is avoided.

Prescribed burning inside Pinus plantations is being used more as a fuel reduction measure, particularly within strategic buffer zone (fire belt) systems in some forest regions (de Ronde et al. 1990).

Natural Biomes

Prescribed burning is used extensively in grassland management throughout the area, particularly in areas with a high biomass production where grassland curing causes a regular wildfire threat. Grassland is burned in fire protection systems outside and within plantation areas, and, also, in the form of fire belts elsewhere in the Summer Rainfall Region. Grassland is also burned regularly by farmers and by nature conservators to provide grazing, where this type of burning is classified as maintenance burning. In certain nature reserves, such as in the Kruger National Park, there was also a major shift in policy towards more natural (lighting) fire areas (so-called Laissez Faire approach) and less prescribed block-burning (Structural Burning). However, the debate regarding these issues is continuing, and some form of combination of both regimes is probably the answer.

In the Fynbos Biome, prescribed burning has been used extensively in the past until the 1980s, but there was a marked decrease in prescribed burning activities in the Cape Regions during the 1990s. More natural fynbos vegetation was regarded as Natural Burning Areas, becoming dependent on the rare lighting occasion. This was mainly caused by a drain of experienced fire managers – and subsequent increase in fire hazard – as a result of fuel accumulation. Therefore, there was a marked increase in fynbos wildfires during the 1998 – 2000 period, in the Western Cape, Southern Cape and Tsitsikamma Regions.

Sustainable land-use practices used in South Africa

Integrated fire protection, at a regional scale, has been inplemented in areas such as the Mpumalanga Highveld, the Melmoth District of Kwazulu-Natal and in the NE Cape Region. However, these areas only form a small percentage of the total South Africa area (less than one percent).Further implementation of the system, using integrated fire hazard evaluation and fire break zoning, will be required in regions with a known high fire hazard. Implementation is at present being considered in the Western Cape (Boland District) and Kwazulu-Natal Midlands.

Fuel reduction programmes, such as the application of prescribed burning of natural and activity fuels on a selective scale, form the basis of this fire protection integration. This approach combines the use of fire for agricultural and silvicultural goals with fire application for ecological requirements and riparian zone maintenance.

Public policies concerning fire

Legislation and policies concerning fire

As a consequence of the severe fires in the Western Cape Province, the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Pretoria, supported by the Premier of the Western Cape, established a Task Team to Review the Western Cape Fires of January 2000. The Task Team reviewed the course of events of several fires, analysed fire weather, interviewed role-players, and analysed the legislative framework. The report of the Task Team came up with a list of recommendations to improve fire management and fire disaster management in the country (Task Team 2000). The geographical scope of the study was the Cape Peninsula and the areas within the Berg and Breede River Water Management Areas.

The legislation pertaining to fires that occurred in the Western Cape fall under the categories:

(a) Legislation Directing Regulating Fires and Fire Management (Within a mostly emergency management context):

  • Forest Act
  • Fire Brigade Services Act
  • National Environmental Management Act
  • Mountain Catchment Areas Act

(b) Towards Integrated Disaster Management Regulation:

  • Disaster Management Bill (in prep.)
  • Veld and Forest Fires Act

(c) Resource Management Regulation:

  • National Parks Act
  • Cape Nature Conservation Ordinance
  • Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act

(d) Land Use Planning Legislation:

  • Physical Planning
  • Development Facilitation Act
  • Local Government Transition Act 209 of 1993
  • Environment Conservation Act 73 of 1989
  • National Environmental Management Act

(e) Air Quality Control Legislation:

  • Atmospheric Pollution Prevent Act
  • Local Authority Legislation

(f) General Environmental Management:

  • National Environmental Management Act

The objective of the review was to use the lessons from these fires to identify the strengths of current fire management systems, and to propose necessary improvements. From an analysis of all relevant information, the study was to derive the lessons relevant to the Western Cape itself, as well as for the fire management systems in South Africa generally, including the relevant elements of the National Disaster Management System as a whole.

The key questions to be addressed in the review included:

  • What ecological conditions (e.g. weather, natural and alien vegetation) prompted the fires to occur and contributed to their intensity and spread?
  • What institutional arrangements were in place for fire management and firefighting, which of these proved effective, and what improvements may be needed?
  • What strategies for fire management and firefighting were adopted during the fires and how were resources (personnel and equipment) used; what proved effective, and what needs to be improved?
  • How effective were the extant provisions of the Forest Act of 1984, the provisions of the Veld and Forest Fires Act of 1998 that were in force at the time, and any other statutes that determine fire management?

The study was to generate a report that would include findings, the inferences from these findings, and recommendations for improvements in the legislative, institutional, and ecosystem management regime that determines the fire management system.

Specifically, recommendations were to include:

  • Proposals for improvement to and guidelines for the effective implementation of the National Veld and Forest Fires Act, as well as recommendations for improved linkages between this Act and other relevant statutes;
  • Recommendations for improvements in the organising and resourcing of and co-ordination and co-operative governance arrangements between spheres of government responsible for and otherwise influencing management for the prevention of veld fires, the control of fires that do break out, and the mitigation of the consequences of fires that do occur;
  • Improvements in the management for fire control of ecosystems as well as of the built and settled environments adjacent to natural or semi-natural ecosystems.

The final output would be feasible proposals for improvements in fire management in South Africa, including legislation, especially the National Veld and Forest Fires Act, institutions and their co-operative governance arrangements, supporting systems, and ecosystem management.

The draft report has been submitted to the Minister in the second half of 2000. It contains a list of more than 60 recommendations addressing the major gaps and fields of activities that have been identified by the Task Team.


Brockett, B. H., H. C. Biggs, and B. W. van Wilgen. 2000. A patch mosaic burning system for conservation areas in southern Africa. International Journal of Wildland Fire (in press).
Huntley, B. J. 1984. Characteristics of South African biomes. In: Ecological effects of fire in South African ecosystems (P. de V. Booysen, and N. M. Tainton, eds.), 1-18. Ecological Studies 48, Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg-New York.
Kruger, F. J. 1979. South African heathlands. In: Ecosystems of the world, Vol 9a. Heathlands and related shrublands (R. L. Specht, ed.). Analytic studies, 1-4.
Meikle, S. 1993. 1992 fire season analysis. Inferno Magazine No. 17, 6-7.
De Ronde, C., J. G. Goldammer, D. D. Wade, and R. Soares. 1990. Prescribed burning in industrial pine plantations. In: Fire in the tropical biota. Ecosystem processes and global challenges (J. G. Goldammer, ed.), pp. 216-272. Ecological Studies 84, Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg-New York.
Task Team. 2000. Review of the veld fires in the Western Cape during 15 to 25 January 2000. Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Pretoria (unpubl. report).
van Wilgen, B.W., H.C. Biggs, and A.L.F. Potgieter. 1998. Fire management and research in the Kruger National Park, with suggestions on the detection of thresholds of potential concern. Koedoe 41, 69-87.
van Wilgen, B.W., H.C. Biggs, S. O’Regan, and N. Mare. 2000. A fire history of the savanna ecosystems in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, between 1941 and 1996. South African Journal of Science 96, 167-178.

Contact address

Cornelius de Ronde
SILVA Forest Services
du Toit Street 16
P.O.Box 612
7280 Bredasdorp


Johann G. Goldammer
Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC)


| Country Notes |

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien