South Africa: 1998 Southern African Fire Season – An Early Start (IFFN No. 19 – September 1998)


1998 Southern African Fire Season – An Early Start

(IFFN No. 19 – September 1998)

The fire season ended badly in the winter and constant rainfall area of the Cape regions, when the “Bergwind” started early during March/April at the end of a dry summer. The worst fire occurred in the Tsitsikamma region where 60 000 ha of natural fynbos vegetation was burned by a wildfire, which also destroyed 4000 ha of industrial plantations. Six people also lost their lives, while 250 were left homeless. The fuel status of this area has been building up over a number of years, with delayed prescribed burning programmes and a neglected fuel management programme in both the fynbos and adjoining plantation interface. The policy of “natural fire allowance” in some of Tsitsikamma areas also attributed to the steady build-up in fire hazard in the area, and it will happen again unless a concerted effort is made for regional fuel management and fire prevention.

In the summer rainfall area, covering more than 90% of Southern Africa, the fire season also started extremely early, when the summer rainfall season ended as early as during April, compared to June/July during normal years. Last year the region was blessed with good rain as late as during August! The result was devastating, with serious wildfires having been reported as early as during the first week of May in the Mpumalanga forest regions and Swaziland. More serious is the lack of time now left to burn grassland fire belts in the region before the winter and if this fire prevention programme is not making good progress, the area will be even more exposed to wildfires. At the time of writing (end June 1998) no rain has fallen yet, and foresters are desperately trying to complete the fire belt preparation programme, even burning under hazardous conditions. No wonder that several wildfires have in fact originated from “controlled” grassland fires during May/June.

The eastern Free State region – a mixture of nature reserves and agricultural land – was the last three years blessed with higher than normal summer rainfall, and the result was that the dynamic grassland covering most of the area developed abnormally-high available fuel levels. This region is normally not devastated by wildfires to the extent as experienced in the higher rainfall areas of Southern Africa, but this year there are signs that serious wildfires will develop in this region, where fire protection measures are not normally considered on a regional scale. During end May a range of fires were started by arsonists in the Vrede district, destroying 30,000 ha of grazing land, and three weeks later another 20,000 ha of nature reserve land was blackened by another arson fire, forcing the game wardens to transfer their mammals to other game reserves. During May a similar fire burned out most of the Loskop Dam Nature Reserve in the Mpumalanga as well, and urgent questions are now raised about the policy of only allowing natural fire in these reserves, without a prescribed burning programme.

The worst loss of life as a result of fire was experienced during early June in the eastern part of the Gauteng Province, where the smoke of an uncontrolled grassland fire caused a traffic pile up, which caused the lives of 20 people, as car after car plunged into the smashed wrecks at the scene of the accident.

With still a long fire season ahead of us in both the summer and constant (Cape) rainfall in Southern Africa, unprepared fire protection systems and complete absence of rain, the region is embracing itself for another 3 – 4 months of wildfire occurrence, after having experienced such mild fire seasons the previous 2 – 3 years. Local government institutions should take note of the fact that these conditions could have been prevented to a large extent by a concerted fire prevention and fuel management programme, and that urgent attention should in future be given to these issues.



From: Neels de Ronde
SILVA Forest Services
du Toit Street 16
P.O.Box 612
7280 Bredasdorp

Fax/Tel: ++27-2841-52546

IFFN No. 19
Country Notes


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