There is no doubt that the use of prescribed fire is the best solution for fuel management application, whether applied in natural fuels (such as Fynbos or Montane Grassland) or in manipulated fuel situations (such as Cultivated Agricultural Land or Industrial Timber Plantations). However, in densely populated areas, such as the W. Cape, application of prescribed fire is much more problematic as a result of public resistance against the use of fire, smoke management problems, and build up urban areas bordering conservation areas. These are probably the main causes why prescribed burning programmes in these areas – such as in the Cape Peninsula – soon fall behind schedule and once e.g. the Fynbos becomes too old to burn with an unacceptable degree of safety, Fynbos-covered areas remain unburned in most cases, until burned-over by wildfires.
With predicted climate change, and subsequently more extreme fire weather expected in the future, it is important that we have a serious look at these problems, and find ways to overcome them.
Educating the public
It is extremely important that a thorough extension programme is launched in the Western Cape, targeting the younger generation (at schools and other eductional institutions) and the adult public at large: From the rate payers, to the workers. This programme should make use of all possible media exposure from newspapers to radio and TV, as well as through government institutions in the form of official launches and public debate.
It is important that the public, particularly those living in the Cape Metropole, are educated in the basics of ecological requirements in nature reserves, the role of fire, how to avoid urban interface problems and why prescribed burning is important. Before prescribed burning is applied, the public should also be notified of the intention to apply prescribed burning, again using the media for announcement purposes.
Fuel Management as a Fire Protection Tool
Fuel management should not be restricted to the prescribed burning of fire breaks or bufferzones, but also include fuel reduction measures outside these systems in the form of block burning of Fynbos for ecological requirements, and fuel reduction on agricultural and forestry land in the form of precribed burning (e.g. under the trees in even-aged Pine plantations suitable for this purpose) or slash burning (e.g. in forestry plantations, after clearfelling or on agricultural land to remove pruned material from vineyards or orchards. These prescribed burning programmes are as important as the preparation of fire breaks and regional bufferzones for fire protection.
Weed control measures should be ongoing, on government and on private land the existing weed control programme should continue indefinitely. Legislation must also be provided to force private landowners to keep their land free of exotic weeds.
Training a specialist prescribed burning team
To apply prescribed burning in any form, whether in nature reserves, parks, even-aged plantations or any land where this tool is applied, it is recommended that a specialized prescribed burning team is trained to apply fire protection measures on land controlled by Central or Local Government, or the National Parks Board. The fire manager (or fire boss) in charge of this team should not only be trained in the preparation before burning, burning execution and mopping up after the fire is applied, but also in fire behaviour prediction (with and without computer packages), fire danger rating (according to the new system now being developed by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, traffic control and smoke management. He should also be capable of handling media exposure.
The forestry institutions of the Western Cape, such as Safcol (whoever will control these plantations in the future) and the Cape Town Municipal Forestry and Parks Department, should also consider training a specialized team to handle the use of fire within plantation areas. The new integrated approach to fire protection can only be successful if all landowners/managers involved in maintaining the new system are directly participating in the application of this fire protection/fuel management programme.
In global wildland fire initiatives the role of fire as a fuel management and fire protection tool has been emphasized over and over again (e.g. during the Second International Wildland Fire Conference, held in Vancouver, Canada, 1997). Increased use of this management tool has been recommended, because lack of fire use has been identified as one of the biggest problems in many countries.
South Africa needs some bold decision-making to improve the wildland fire and fire management situation, but I am confident that success can (and will be) achieved.
Cornelius “Neels” De Ronde SILVA Forest Services du Toit Street 16 P.O.Box 612 7280 Bredasdorp SOUTH AFRICA