Wildfire in the Southern African Development Community Conference (IFFN No. 21)

Wildfire in the Southern African Development Community Conferenceas part of the

Wood for Africa Conference 1999

(IFFN No. 21 – September 1999, p. 11-14)

The Wood for Africa Conference was held in Pietermaritzburg, 10 June 1999, with as focus group middle and upper level management in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and abroad. It was a one-day focused conference that coincided with the Wood for Africa Exhibition held on the same site, from 10 to 13 June 1999.


In his opening speech the conference chairman C. de Ronde – author of this conference report – underscored that Southern Africa has a very important fire history in its natural environment, and the role of fire in maintaining biodiversity in the region cannot be over-emphasised. Whether in the magnificent fynbos plant kingdom, high altitude montane grassland or sub-tropical savanna, moist and dry vegetation communities need fire some time during their growth cycle, and this fact just cannot be ignored.

During the 20th century, accelerated population growth and significant changes in land use in the rural, agricultural and forestry sectors, have created new challenges in fire management. In some cases a steady accumulation of fuel biomass has caused a marked increase in fire hazard. Subsequently the occurrence of wildfires in the region increased dramatically. More forest plantations were burned during wildfires in recent years than during any other time in our history, and the sustainability of the forestry industry is at present being threatened by wildfire in certain regions, with (for the first time) a significant number of tragic human deaths reported and millions of Rands lost in the form of private dwellings burned out in the process.

However, the forestry industry also experienced some remarkable success stories in their fight against wildfire with a new integrated approach to fire protection being implemented in some forest regions. Fire hazard and subsequent wildfire losses were reduced significantly, and we should take note of these events, and vigorously seek expanded implementation of these measures and fuel management schemes at a regional scale. Increased use of regional buffer zoning, fuel appraisal and prescribed burning inside plantation stands played a significant role in these fire hazard improvements.

Technology in fire management also improved drastically, particularly in the field of fire detection and fire fighting. Our scientists and fire managers are still meeting the challenge of reducing fire hazard by implementing these important new tools in the forestry environment, and will also significantly contribute towards containment of wildfire damage. The recent introduction of the new Veld and Forest Fire Act has also contributed to a more acceptable wildfire occurrence, and will continue to do so as the Act is implemented.

Unfortunately much work still has to be done in numerous regions of Southern Africa, where wildfires are still causing unacceptable damage levels. For this reason it is even more important that we thrive towards a complete integrated approach to fire protection at a regional scale, and include our rural communities, nature conservation management bodies and agricultural sector, locally and beyond the South African borders. Education in this respect has to be improved, and we need to look critically at out levels of fire-related training at our technicons and universities, as well as fire-related research progress. I am afraid that the latter has been neglected seriously during recent years and needs urgent funding improvement if we want to stay abreast in the fast growing world of fire technology. Southern African scientists used to be leaders in the field of fire ecology, but fire researchers have now become extremely rare species. This situation needs to be reversed if we want to meet our wildfire challenges.

Keynote Address

Johann G. Goldammer, leader of the Fire Ecology and Biomass Research Group of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Biogeochemistry Department, based at the University of Freiburg, Germany, presented a keynote address touching on Southern African fire issues in a global context. His presentation “Forestry and Land Management in the Subcontinent of Fire: Challenges for Southern Africa”, covered the increasing demand of forest products and subsequent increased interest in carbon sequestration, and how this challenge must be met by plantation forestry.

He painted a picture of degraded natural ecosystems, a changed socio-economic and cultural environment and how the establishment of plantations have changed the role of fire and fire management in the region, as well as on a global scale. To illustrate this, J. Goldammer compared the situation in Southern Africa with that of wildlands in other regions, and how this ties up with regional and global programmes.

As leader of the FAO/ECE/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire, editor of the UN ECE/FAO International Forest Fire News and recently Convener of the Working Group on Early Warning of Fire and other Environmental Hazards of the UN International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), J. Goldammer presented the global picture of wildfire occurrence, effects and control as well as recent developments to improve the situation on a worldwide scale. He also reported on the progress and outcome of various international projects, and how this will influence the status quo in Southern Africa.

Wildfire Management in the SADC Countries of Southern Africa

Chris Kromhout, Deputy Director, Conservation Forestry, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, reported on the 1992 discussions between representatives of the Forestry Sector Technical Co-ordination Unit (FSTCU) and the USDA Forest Service, where the possibility of a SADC-wide regional forest fire management system was raised, and the subsequent terms of reference for and investigation and a review of the situation, drawn up during 1994. This was followed up by a meeting in Lusaka by representatives of the SADC countries and by the project team consisting of experts from the US and Canada. The review was sponsored by the USDA and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). By 1996, recommendations and subsequent project proposals were submitted for approval, after which nothing was heard of this initiative.

The chairman reported that, as far as his knowledge goes, the proposals were not approved (he himself was involved in some of the recommendations) and that the US co-ordinator of the initiative, Mr. Mike Calvin, has subsequently applied for early retirement, and has applied for permanent residency in South Africa. He was, however, involved in getting fire management units off the ground in Botswana and Malawi.

Integrated Fire Protection Systems in Southern African Plantations

Neels de Ronde, forestry consultant, presented the mechanics of the new approach to fire protection, an integrated regional system for forest regions. The basis for this, fuel modelling, fire hazard rating and regional buffer zoning with full integration of nature conservation and riparian zone management were explained, and how successful the new ideas were implemented in some forest regions. Financial implications of the fire protection improvement, and further implementation elsewhere in Southern Africa was also presented.

The necessity to incorporate other disciplines, such as nature conservation and agriculture was stressed, while the importance of considering the urban interface and rural requirements was also emphasised. The formulation and application of this regional fire protection strategy was highly recommended.

The National Veld and Forest Fire Act

Lael Bethlehem, Director of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) of South Africa, introduced the National Veld and Forest Fire Act No. 101 of 1998. The Act will be the first of its kind to address the wildfire problem on a National scale. On 30 April 1999 a conference was held in Pretoria to discuss the implementation of the Act. The DWAF will be responsible for the provision and management of policies regarding forestry, and the administration of the Act.

Although DWAF will not play a direct fire fighting role or duplicate the work of fire management agencies, DWAF will put together the framework to support people working on the ground, and will play a role in the following four key areas:

  • Helping to develop Fire Protection Associations (FPAs)
  • Development of the Fire Danger Rating System
  • Research and Statistics
  • Assisting in the dissemination of information to the public

Latest Developments in the Field of Fire Detection, Suppression and Prevention

Additional presentations were given on several technical developments. Gavin Hough reported on “Fire Detection and Positioning” involving improved high-resolution digital video techniques. Another “Digital Early Fire Detection System” was introduced by Malcolm Warrack. Two papers were presented on “Health and Safety of Wildland Firefighters” (by Mark Anderson) and “Fire Insurance and Risk Management” (by Pierre Bekker).

In the field of fire fighting Hennie Engelbrecht reported about “Combined Cross Border Fire: The Usutu Pulp Fires of 1998”. This presentation provided information about cross-border wildfire threats between the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa, and the Swaziland-based Usutu Company. He emphasised the importance of co-operative fire fighting across company and country boundaries and the importance of co-ordinated fire detection, initial ground attack and aerial support.

In his presentation on “The Urban Interface Zone” Stephen Barber discussed the changing role of the urban interface and its relative importance in Southern Africa today. It was stressed that the conflict between urban developments and the natural environment is not in such serious conflict as elsewhere in the world, such as in California, USA. However, it was generally agreed that some hotspots are presenting a serious fire hazard in some of the Cape regions, and that urgent steps are required to counteract these developments.

Jakes Oosthuizen concentrated his presentation on the prevention of veld and forest fires by means of the law, human relations, statistics and fire weather monitoring, as well as fire preparedness, early detection and attack. He also sketched the present fire hazard situation, the role of El Niño, La Niña and medium-term forecasts.


In his closing speech the chairman mentioned that this conference had been organised at just the right moment, and that we now need to consider how to take the momentum of this meeting further. A follow up conference, covering the whole of Southern Africa and including other affected disciplines such as Nature Conservation, Rural communities and Agriculture, was suggested. This meeting should also be used to invite international specialists as speakers, and in this way address most important concerns.

Johann Goldammer reported that a Round Table Conference will be held in Namibia first with some South African delegates attending. This should then be followed up by a similar conference in South Africa, with a broader regional strategy in mind with the aim of fire management improvement in the whole of Southern Africa, and eventually further north into the continent.

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

Fax/Tel: ++27-2841-52546
Mobile:   0825500430
e-mail:    nderonde@dorea.co.za


Fig. 1. Smoke from savanna fires in Southern Africa are a common picture since more than a million years, but become of increasing public concern in the context of increasing awareness on the role of “greenhouse gas” emissions.

Country Notes
IFFN No. 21

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien