Regional Subsahara Wildland Fire Network (Afrifirenet)
A Region of the Global Wildland Fire Network

The Working on Fire Programme

Integrated Fire Management in Eight Pilot
 Umbrella Fire Protection Associations in South Africa


Most regions in South Africa are situated in naturally fire-prone ecosystems.  The inherent fire hazard is exacerbated by the following:

  • An increasing extent of the urban development interface with naturally fire-prone systems.

  • The escalating occurrence of extensive infestations of invading alien plants. 

  • Fire risks associated with forestry and agriculture. 

  • The build-up of excessive fuel loads (natural, commercial and invasive). 

Budget and capacity constraints have also severely curtailed the effective management of these areas.  While the natural ecological role of fire must be recognised, the exposure of communities, agriculture and business to large, devastating fires in the recent past has emphasised the need for an integrated approach to fire management in the affected regions.

The impact of wild fires in natural vegetation on the poorest of the poor, particularly the rural poor, cannot be overstated.  It is those living at the margins who are always the most vulnerable.  In the case of rural informal settlements (and also in the case of some of the urban settlements), these are located physically at the margin, in the transition zone between densely settled land and land carrying high fuel loads.  Whether these fuel loads are the result of alien invasive plants or the lack of integrated veld management (including fuel reduction strategies) in the natural veld, the consequence is the same.  It is high fire risk, and it is the inhabitants of the adjacent informal settlements that bear the brunt of such unmanaged risk. The direct losses are in terms of:

  • loss of life, and disability, due to vegetation fires;

  • loss of housing and possessions when thatched or wooden dwellings ignite, and

  • loss of grazing, crops, livestock and subsistence natural resources.

Of equal – if not greater – importance is the “knock-on” effect of wild fires on rural economies.  A survey of flower and thatch harvesting of natural plant resources in the fynbos in 1993 showed that the value of this produce amounted to R65-70 million per year and sustained 20-30,000 rural people in subsistence livelihoods.  While no accurate current value is available, it is reliably estimated that the value of this industry is now at least R120 million per year, sustaining an equal number of jobs.  

The extensive fire in early 1998 in the Plettenberg Bay area provides a poignant illustration of the impacts of such fires on the poor.  Five Working for Water employees and a sixth person lost their lives, and a further nine were seriously injured.  In the Craggs area alone, as a result of the loss of forestry and natural veld resources, 150 jobs were lost in the plantation/saw milling and flower harvesting sectors.  While these jobs may not all be lost permanently, there will be a hiatus of four to five years before the veld is old enough for flower harvesting can recommence.  The extent to which jobs in the timber industry will be recovered is questionable.  In a small rural community where the alternatives for economic activity are limited, a fire such as this one has devastating social consequences.

These large fires also impact seriously in terms of the costs to the Working for Water programme.  In the Plettenberg Bay case, approximately 15 000 hectares of natural veld with alien infestations in the 25-50% density category were burnt.  Fire stimulates the germination of the seed of many invasive species, including Hakea species (in this case).  It can be reliably predicted that on at least half the area burnt, the level of infestation post-fire will exceed 75% and the cost per hectare of treat these denser infestations will rise by 60% from R1 100/ha to R1 850/ha.  Note: Working for Water is not “giving away its money” – it is “investing” in a programme, best suited to be run by DPLG, to curb the massive costs for WfW through uncontrolled veld-fires.  This is real co-operative governance!  

The investment in alien clearing on this land preceding the fire has been compromised and the volume of work generated by post-fire germination is too large to be manageable.  This means that for a period of time the programme will be in retreat in this particular catchment, with the costs of recovery escalating continuously. While WfW recognises the importance of fire as a natural phenomenon and does not intend the above example to portray that WfW intends to suppress all natural fires, it should be emphasised that better control of large fires (when and where they occur) could have significant financial implications and allow for better planning in terms of where to focus WfW’s efforts.  This translates into a cost to the WfW programme of at least R5,5 million in additional initial clearing costs that it must fund from the Plettenberg Bay fire alone, and these costs will escalate to more than double the costs as the trees grow and spread further, if (as is the case) WfW does not have the financial and managerial capacity to deal with this new invasion.

The impact that uncontrolled wild fires have had on the Mountain Catchment areas of the Western Cape in recent years should not be ignored. The extensive fires in the Boland Catchments, which serve agriculture and the Cape Metropolitan Area, have significantly influenced the quality and level of stream flow feeding the major catchment dams. Dam water levels for the period 1996-2000 were the lowest ever recorded. 

In addition to the above considerations, the National Veld and Forest Fires Act of 1998 requires that landowners take particular measures for fire protection, and that communities should establish Fire Protection Associations (FPAs) to address the need for co-ordinated fire management.  The FPAs referred to below are those created in terms of the National Veld and Forest Fires Act. This must include rapid response capability if the probability of disastrous fire events in the rural landscape is to be reduced.  However, resources in terms of capacity, skills and funding are limited in most of the affected areas.  For this reason, the Umbrella Fire Protection Associations (UFPAs) are envisaged to provide the overarching, co-ordinated support, including aerial fire-fighting support, in provinces.  The UFPAs will provide for over-arching services such as aerial fire-fighting support, rapid attack teams, fire weather services, and co-ordination of fire records and training. 

                Eight UFPA’s

  • Western Cape UFPA – Working on Fire Stellenbosch Fire Control Centre
  • Southern Cape UFPA – Working on Fire Witfontein Fire Control Centre (George)
  • Eastern Cape UFPA – Working on Fire Ugi Fire Control Centre
  • KwaZulu Natal UFPA – Working on Fire Shafton Fire Control Centre (Howick)
  • Freestate UFPA – Working on Fire Bethlehem Fire Control Centre
  • Mpumalanga UFPA – Working on Fire Nelspruit Fire Control Centre
  • Limpopo UFPA – Working on Fire Tzaneen Fire Control Centre
  • Gauteng / Northwest UFPA – Working on Fire Tshwane Fire Control Centre

The commercial sectors of Forestry and Agriculture suffer extensive financial loss every year as uncontrolled fires destroy crops, plantations, buildings and equipment (see Annexure 1 & 2 for recent examples of such losses in Mpumalanga).  Both sectors invest substantially in fire protection measures, through the development of firebreaks, deployment of fire-fighting teams and purchase of fire-fighting equipment.  A national support structure such as the one proposed in this project will provide the commercial sector with access to addition al resources and improved infrastructure to control large fires. Government, in terms of Section 16 (i) (d) of the Disaster Management Bill 2002 (led by DPLG through the NDMC) will negotiate with the private, forestry and commercial sectors to ensure a fair and reciprocal arrangement.  As this project aims to provide direct benefits to private sector bodies, it is expected that this sector will in return, support the venture in a variety of ways.

Fires of all sorts produce a mixture of gases and particles (collectively called ‘smoke’) that have detrimental effects on the global climate, air quality and human health.  Vegetation veldfires in South Africa generate approximately 64 thousand tons of methane, 76 thousand tons of non-methane hydrocarbons, 39 thousand tons of nitric oxide, 6 thousand tons of nitrous oxide and about 40 thousand tons of smoke particles per year.  They also produce about 12 million tons of carbon dioxide, but as a first approximation, it is assumed that the vegetation, which re-grows after the fire, re-absorbs this gas, and therefore stable fire regimes are ‘carbon neutral’.  This is not true for the other trace gases, which remain net emissions.  Thus a reduction in fire frequency and/or extent leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which can be accurately quantified.  

It is neither practical, nor desirable, to completely eliminate fires from natural vegetation, but a reduction in area burned per year of in the order of 25% would be achievable and compatible with other land management objectives, including the preservation of biodiversity, the control of alien vegetation, and the maximum yield of clean water. 

Greenhouse gas emission reduction inherent in forestry areas where fires can occur can be funded by trades in carbon credits, with initial financing provided by the World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund.  South Africa is one of five countries identified by GEF for funding specifically earmarked to address national environmental disaster management.  A concept proposal has been submitted through the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism to GEF for funding to supplement this initiative.  What will be developed now is a “second phase” to this business plan, through which the resourcing of the programme can be significantly enhanced, and the scope and extent of the programme substantially increased.  It is expected that such funding would only become available in one to two years’ time. 

The situation has focused attention on the need to establish an integrated plan for fire management.  Speed of response and adequate ground support are absolutely critical factors in fighting fires.  This plan proposes the development of an integrated fire management strategy through appropriate veld management, fuel load reduction and practical protection measures, linked to the development of the required capacity, skills and structures.  These actions will be undertaken in accordance with the National Veld and Forest Fires Act.  Furthermore, the achievement of the optimum cost-benefit ratios will be promoted by the reciprocal use of resources between regions.

An amount of R35 million per year will be suspended from the Vote of DWAF and transferred to the Vote of DPLG, sub-programme Disaster Management for an initial period of one year, to ensure effective implementation of the plan in eight provinces.  This will include facilitating the establishment of FPAs with fire-fighting capacity (including ground crews to support aerial fire-fighting capacity and fire control teams to do prescribed burning) in areas within the eight provinces – namely Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Southern Cape, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Free State and Gauteng / Northwest – as a pilot exercise.  Skills and capacity development and the creation of labour-intensive job opportunities, in keeping with the Poverty Relief Fund requirements, will be undertaken.  The jobs created by this programme are estimated at 850 for the year ending March 2005.  It is expected that these pilot FPAs will provide role models that, as they are replicated elsewhere in the country, will leverage private sector investment in FPAs and their activities. In this way, the improved management of fire risks will be promoted.  It could also provide successful “exit opportunities” for those workers who have gained temporary employment in the WfW programme and similar Poverty Relief Fund initiatives.  The seed funding for this initiative is from the Poverty Relief Fund, through the Working for Water Programme to DPLG (NDMC).

WoF Prescribed Burning

Nelspruit Hotshot Crew,with UN-FAO and GFMC observers

Howick Hotshot Crew

Programme Vision

To promote an integrated approach to fire management, initially in eight pre-determined regions within seven provinces, through assistance in the establishment of embryonic Umbrella Fire Protection Associations (FPAs), co-operative development of fire protection measures, reduction of fire hazards, improved veldfire control, the implementation of appropriate veld-management strategies and the empowerment of communities affected by fire, in accordance with the policies and practices of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act of 1998 and the Poverty Relief Fund.

MI-8 Helicopter with Hotshot Crew 
at Newlands Forest Station


  • To develop an integrated approach to overall fire management including all aspects of protection, hazard reduction and control.

  •  The trial development and implementation of veldfire management strategies in the eight pilot UFPAs.

  • The trial implementation of the regulations for UFPA and FPA formation, currently being formulated by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.

  • To improve veldfire control in general, and in particular by enhancing rapid initial attack capabilities using appropriate ground and aerial equipment. 

  • To facilitate the establishment of functional UFPAs and FPAs, through a building of local capacity to promote involvement in fire management. 

  • To limit the effect of veldfires on poor communities in areas exposed to such fires.

  • To test the impact on key greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from fires in the pilot areas.

  • To ensure stakeholders and fire-control agency co-operation, for a best use of facilities and equipment – especially a reciprocal provision of services during regional fire seasons.

  • To create opportunities for labour-intensive work in the preparation of fire-protection measures in the participating FPAs (eg, clear invading alien plants, create firebreaks, and reduce fuel-load).

  • To develop skills, capacity and opportunities in affected communities.

  • To address the costs of fires, both in terms of damage and control, and the role that an integrated fire management strategy can play in reducing these costs.

  • To evaluate the costs, benefits and effectiveness of the investment (e.g. reduction of damage and fire-fighting costs).

  • To recognise the role of fire, and its use, in South African ecosystem management.

  • To establish a national co-ordinating and command system, driven by a national co-ordinating centre with provincial and local co-ordinating centres falling under it with a national and international deployment strategy.To establish, train and deploy “rapid attack” fire-fighting teams within eight UFPA’s, trained as specialised hand crews and helicrews. 

  • To establish 22-man Hotshot crews with two crew leaders and 20 fire fighters who are able to operate in independent 11-man crews.

  • To provide for exit strategies for workers in the Working for Water programme, and other Poverty Relief Fund programmes supporting this initiative.

  • To develop a relationship with Working for Water in order to train, certify and equip their crews in fire mop-up techniques in order to support the Working on Fire programme.

  • To develop a working relationship with Working for Water in developing a combined fuel reduction programme.


Meanwhile the Working on Fire Programme employed and trained already over 850 persons of formerly disadvantaged communities. 

More Information:

Contact and Further Information:

Mr. Chris de Bruno Austin, 
Environet Solutions
Working on Fire Operations Manager

Tel: 0027- (0)83 4590504




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