On 28 September 1994, towards the end the worst fire season recorded in South African Industrial Plantations to date, the industry also experienced its most serious loss of lives during a wildfire, since its existence. Ten fire fighters lost their lives during a runaway fire in the Eastern Transvaal forest region, while eleven others had to be hospitalised for serious burns.
The investigation is still in progress, but the fire was probably started by honey hunters inside a SAFCOL plantation, near the village of Sabie, under extremely dangerous conditions (Red grading, fire danger index 77). Various institutions rendered immediate assistance to local fire fighting teams who had by now already started to attempt to contain the fire. The Forest Fire Association (FFA) also arrived at the scene within minutes, with spotter planes, water bombers and a MI-8 helicopter (details on the FFA organization in IFFN No. 11, July 1994).
By the time the fire fighters arrived at the scene the fire was already sweeping through Pinus and Eucalyptus stands, with the latter very soon developing serious spotting ahead of the main fire front. The unfortunate team of fire fighters that lost their lives or were seriously burned, found themselves suddenly encircled by spotting fires which developed into a high intensity head fire within seconds. Other detail cannot be provided at this stage as the case is still being investigated by a specially-appointed commission of enquiry. What can be mentioned is that the sequence of spotting fire development, around the site where the accident occurred, was photographed from the air from the spotter plane. This evidence will provide the commission with a unique opportunity to assist them in their investigation, and to avoid any re-occurrence of this tragic event.
Two vehicles and other equipment where also burned out during the fire, and direct losses (excluding plantations lost) will probably exceed R 1,000,000. The fire swept through about 1,270 ha of plantations, but some mature stands appear to have survived the fire.
At the time of writing (December 1994) droughty conditions continue to persist in certain forestry and agricultural districts in the Transvaal, and tree mortality as a result of drought stress is still occurring on the drier sites, creating further fuel accumulation problems and fire hazard situations.
Before the 1995 winter (fire) season, some measures will be considered in the form of preventative disaster management, to combat continued fire hazard threats. A Fire Risk Management Workshop was held at Nelspruit during November 1994, by representatives of the timber industry and support services, to address future fire risk problems. Emergency measures are now being planned to minimise future fire losses.
From: Neels de Ronde Address: SILVA Forest Services 16 Du Toit Street Bredasdorp 7280 SOUTH AFRICA