When the Forest Act of 1984 was revised in 1998, it was decided to extract the sections pertaining to fires and produce a separate act. This has elevated the importance of fires countrywide and has taken the issue to a much wider target audience than only the forest industry. The burden to control fires has now been put squarely on the shoulders of the landowner, which means that regulation by Government is limited to a minimum, but still enough to encourage economic and social progress. Through the Act, Government undertakes to provide a service by adopting the responsibility of developing a national fire danger rating, of collecting fire related statistics and of campaigning an awareness around the dangers of fires and of measures to limit losses caused by fires.
Regulations of the Act are presently being drafted. The most important provisions of the new Act are briefly highlighted:
The purpose of the Act is to prevent and combat veld, forest and mountain fires throughout the country and thereby limit and reduce the damage and losses caused by fires to life, fixed property, infrastructure improvements, movable property, stock, crops, fauna and flora and veld in rural areas.
Fire Protection Associations
The intention of these associations is to decentralise governance of fire issues relating to prediction, prevention, managing and fighting to the lowest practical level for the landowner. The idea is that landowners organise themselves into logical geographical units and with backing of legislation, take charge of their own affairs. These associations have to apply for registration in order to obtain legal status. They deal with all aspects of veldfire prevention and fire fighting. The Act regulates the establishment, registration, duties and functioning of Fire Protection Associations.
Fire Protection Associations have the authority to make rules and enforce them. The Chief Executive Officer of a Fire Protection Association is officially registered as a Fire Protection Officer and has certain duties and powers (power to enter and search, to seize and to arrest) under the Act. The registration of a Fire Protection Association can be withdrawn if it becomes inoperative or ineffective.
Local Authority Fire Brigades
In terms of the Constitution, fire fighting is a Local Authority function, with Provinces and Central Government playing facilitating roles. Also, Local Authorities are expected to serve their districts, not only the cities, towns and villages, but all farms, communal areas and State land. Fire fighting services cannot accomplish the task without the assistance of landowners, who have to have their own capacity to deal with fires. The Act reflects this position in that the Chief Fire Officer of a municipality, where it is a member and has a service, will, in certain circumstances, be the Fire Protection Officer of the Fire Protection Association. The parties involved in this process of integration have to devise a way of dealing with a novel, dynamic situation without losing the competence there may be to deal with fires.
Fire Danger Rating
The Act obliges Government to prepare and maintain, on a continuous basis, a fire danger rating system for the country in consultation with the Weather Bureau and Fire Protection Associations. A process has been started to establish the required system. Terms of reference for a project to be undertaken by a contractor have been drafted. The contractor has to evaluate alternative methods of calculating the indicators to rate the fire danger and recommend the model most suitable for South African conditions.
The Act places a duty on landowners to prepare boundary firebreaks and maintain them in areas where fires occur, whether within or outside of an area of a Fire Protection Association. The preparation of firebelts, the timing thereof and their location depends upon the co-operation of landowners. The width and length of a firebelt is not prescribed by the Act, but must be such that it has a reasonable chance of preventing a fire.
There rests a duty on all owners to acquire equipment and have available personnel to fight fires. The degree to which this is done is either subject to prescription or it must be reasonable under the circumstances. Certain persons are given the power under certain conditions to enter land and fight fires or take control in fighting a fire in an emergency. The Act also provides for agreements to be entered into between the State and Fire Protection Associations or between such associations to assist each other in a case of fire.
Delegation and Assignment
The Act allows the Minister to delegate the exercise of any of his powers, apart from individuals in the State, to anybody who is not an organ of the State. This could open doors for handling some of the provisions at Provincial or Local Government level.
Presumption of Negligence
In cases of civil proceedings, negligence on the part of the defendant is presumed until the contrary is proved, unless the defendant is a member of a Fire Protection Association. This in itself is a big incentive for landowners to join such an association. However, the plaintiff must still prove that an act or an omission by the defendant was wrongful. This could become a complicated legal concept which would demand that each situation be considered in court on its merits.
The Act lists certain activities which make a landowner or any other person guilty of an offence. Negligence amounts to fault for purposes of an offence. In a court of law the reasonableness of any action under given circumstances will be under scrutiny.
The main principle within this act is that the landowner is the main player in controlling wildfires. The State is going to assist to a greater extent than in the past having taken upon itself to apply a system of fire danger rating. It must also devise, together with all the role players, an information system to raise the awareness level about wildfires among the public at large, especially among landowners.
Fritz K. von Krosigk Director, Community Forestry
Department of Water Affairs and Forestry
Private Bag X93