South Africa: Some Notes on Current Fire Research in South Africa (IFFN No. 11 – July 1994)


Some Notes on Current Fire Research inSouth Africa

(IFFN No. 11 – July 1994, p. 11-12)

Fire research in South Africa has traditionally been based in the fields of forestry and agriculture, particularly pasture science, with significant inputs from academic institutions. Both the forestry and agriculture approaches have been based to a large extent on long-term research sites. While this emphasis is declining in response to changing priorities in government funding, many useful reviews have been published (see, for example, Booysen and Tainton 1984, van Wilgen et al. 1990, 1992, Scholes and Walker 1993), and these form the basis for a continuing interest in fire ecology and also for the formulation of fire management policies in the country (References).

A number of current developments in the field of fire research will be of interest to readers. The first of these is the SAFARI experiment. SAFARI, the Southern African Fire-Atmosphere Research Initiative, forms part of the Southern Tropical Atlantic Regional Experiment (STARE) and is jointly conducted with its Eastern component TRACE-A (Transport and Chemistry near the Equator in the Atlantic).

SAFARI is an international cooperative research programme aimed at quantifying the role of savanna fires in the global carbon cycle and the production of ozone and greenhouse gases. The programme is highly interdisciplinary and stresses major inputs from local African scientists and extensive international participation, particularly from Germany, the U.S.A., France and Canada. The project combined observation from a DC-8 aircraft over the ocean and with the measurements carried out by smaller aircraft and ground based facilities. An important focus on the measurement campaign was South Africa, where prescribed experimental fires took place in the Kruger National Park in savannas whose history and ecology are well documented. The climax of the research campaign was in September 1992, when two prescribed burns of about 2,000 ha each were carried out, and extensive ground and aerial measurements were made. Additional, and more widespread, measurements were made in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia.

Several scientific papers of topical scientific interest in a globally important field have been produced. The papers were presented at a data workshop held in Stellenbosch, South Africa, in May 1993. Results of the data workshop are to be published in a dedicated issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research (ca. end of 1994). A second product aimed at a wider readership of managers, policymakers and environmentalists, is being written by participating scientists. The book will be published locally, to ensure a reasonable price and local impact, by the Witwatersrand University Press (ca. early 1995). The book will be edited by two overseas editors (M.O. Andreae and J.G. Goldammer) and two local editors (Janette Lindesay and Brian van Wilgen).

Another current development is aimed at the creation of a GIS-based fire management system for the mountain areas of the Western Cape province, to provide objective procedures for managing fire. Prescribed burning is carried out in the mountain catchments to rejuvenate the indigenous fynbos (shrubland) vegetation, to reduce fire hazard, and to control invasive alien plants. Fire is the only practical tool for achieving these aims in the mountainous terrain. Although recent research has improved understanding of the response of these systems to fire, managing fire to achieve goals is very difficult. The system comprises a central geographical information system for managing and processing spatial data, linked to personal computers with dBase IV databases and simple rule-based models for decision-making. Current applications are: 

  • prioritization of areas for burning
  • monitoring the success of fire management
  • mapping fire hazard for fire control planning
  • production of management summaries and statistics.

The results of this work have been recently been published (Richardson et al. 1994).

Researchers at South African Universities, and notably at the Botany Department of the University of Cape Town, continue to do pioneer work in the field of fire ecology. The challenge in South Africa today is to ensure that the research remains relevant and contributes to the development of solutions to management problems (see References).


Booysen, V., N.M.Tainton (eds.) 1984. Ecological effects of fire in South African ecosystems. Ecological Studies Vol.48, Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg-New York, 426 p.

Richardson, D.M., B.W.van Wilgen, D.C.le Maitre, K.B. Higgins, G.G.Forsyth 1994. Using computer technology in fire management: an example from the mountain catchment areas of Cape Province, South Africa. International Journal of Wildland Fire 4(1)(in press).

Scholes R.J., B.J.Walker 1993. An African savanna: Synthesis of the Nylsvley study. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

van Wilgen B.W., C.S.Everson, W.S.W.Trollope 1990. Fire management in southern Africa: some examples of current objectives, practices and problems. In: Fire in the tropical biota (J.G.Goldammer ed.), 179-215. Ecological Studies Vol.84. Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg-New York, 489 p. 

van Wilgen B.W., D.M.Richardson, F.J.Kruger, H.J.van Hensbergen (eds.) 1992. Fire in South African mountain fynbos: Ecosystem, community and species response at Swartboskloof. Ecological Studies Vol. 93, Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg-New York, 325 p.



From: Brian van Wilgen
Division of Forest Science
and Technology
Jonkershook Forestry Research Center
Privat Bag X5011
SA – Stellenbosch 7600

Fax:     +27-21-8838394
Phone: +27-21-8839771

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