South Africa — The devastating fires that have swept huge swathes of the Western Cape since early December have caused damage estimated at R665-million and cost 4 022 jobs.
But the Western Cape government, supported by the local authorities most affected by the fires, has decided not to ask President Thabo Mbeki to declare them disaster areas, mainly to avoid the possible perception by tourists that they are no longer worth visiting.
Announcing this at a media conference on Wednesday, Premier Ebrahim Rasool said the province believed declaring disaster areas would have “dire” unintended consequences that would worsen the situation.
But Rasool also announced that his provincial departments were trawling their budgets to see where they could find funds to mitigate the impacts of the fires, and that the national government would also be asked to help.
And he warned that people tossing cigarette butts out of car windows – the cause of many wildfires – would be targeted by local government bylaws which would be among the first to be promulgated after local government elections on March 1.
One of the biggest amounts the province is seeking is R17-million from the national Working for Water programme to help combat the spread of alien invasive plants that spread rapidly after fires.
This clearing work – on state-owned land – will also create numerous short-term jobs for many of the more than 4 000 farmworkers and wildflower pickers and packers who have lost their jobs as a result of the fires.
Environment MEC Tasneem Essop said the rapid growth of alien plants was the biggest post-fire threat: “If we don’t clear them now, the cost will rise to R60-million.”
Pointing out that the new disaster management act would come into effect on April 1, Rasool said this would be strictly applied to ensure that landowners cut the required firebreaks and removed invasive alien vegetation.
A comprehensive picture of damage has emerged and includes:
In the Cape Winelands, fire burnt through 49 031 hectares between December 8 and January 6.
The fires in the Overberg burnt 46 000ha between February 1-4.
At Wolseley, 12 000ha was burnt from February 1-7.
Rasool said fynbos and veld had been burned, causing “extensive” damage to the wildflower industry which had lost export orders as a result.
About 1 000ha of orchards had been destroyed, and timber plantations and other agricultural land damaged, he said.
Damage to buildings had been “limited” but the tourism industry had incurred “significant” costs.