Fire aftermath: time to act

Fire aftermath: time to act 

9 February 2006

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South Africa — Last week’s fire that started in the Elim area and spread to Walker Bay was quite exceptional, writes Sean Privett, a botanist at Grootbos, where extensive damage was caused.

Speaking to local farmers who have lived in this area for many years this would appear to be the worst fire in living memory.

While the landscape does look devastated, it is reassuring to know the resilience of fynbos and that fire simply resets the successional process and that everything returns with great gusto over time.

Driving through the charred landscape can be depressing and we have witnessed dead grysbok, tortoises, puff-adders and other small animals, yet at the same time it is remarkable to see how much life there is. We even saw bat-eared foxes for the first time on Grootbos.

These fires are natural phenomena and somehow the fauna survives. The area is in for a wonderful post-fire flowering succession over the next couple of years and maybe even some new plant species will be recorded.

We should, however, look back at this fire and examine what lessons can be learnt. Many areas devastated by the fire had not burnt for decades and, as a result, burnt particularly ferociously.

On top of this, large areas were densely infested with alien trees increasing fuel loads and fire intensity. For years Khoi-khoi inhabitants and later European farmers patch burnt areas to increase grazing potential.

Over the last few decades land use has changed over much of the area to lifestyle living, fynbos flower farming and ecotourism. Unlike in the past, landowners are now petrified of setting fire to their neighbour’s land and generally do all they can to keep fire out.

The result is increased fuel loads and what happened last week. Another problem, which only seems to get worse, is alien infestation on the Agulhas plain. Despite many millions of rands being spent on conservation initiatives in the region and the best efforts of certain private landowners, we have gone backwards over the last decade.

Now is the time to make a real impact on this scourge, as post-fire follow-up is relatively cheap. It is crucial to get our act together and muster local, regional and national support to finance an effective job creation programme to eliminate these water and fire-thirsty weeds.

The fire has also provided a great opportunity to come together at a regional level and explore strategies to manage and pre-empt these wild-fires. We are, after all, starting with a blank slate and, with proper planning, should be undertaking controlled burns within a few years to promote a mosaic of different veld ages and thereby reduce fire threats in theregion.


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