Cape Town — Veld and forest fires cost the South African economy more than R4.3bn a year, parliament’s water affairs and forestry portfolio committee heard on Wednesday.
Over R3.7bn of this was the estimated average “indirect loss” each year to the country’s forestry sector, Working on Fire (WoF) general manager Johan Heine told MPs.
The industry lost an estimated 15 000ha a year to fires, he said.
“Fire costs them, in direct damage – that’s before the downstream cost is calculated – about R90m; and costs the end-user – this is including pulp producers, not just saw-mills – about R3.7bn.”
There were an average 9 000 veld and forest fires a year in South Africa.
Western Cape most “plagued”
According to figures presented by Heine, the Western Cape is South Africa’s most fire-plagued province, with an estimated average of 3 000 veld and forest fires each year.
Next are KwaZulu-Natal (2 000) and Mpumalanga (2 000), followed by the Eastern Cape (1 000) and Limpopo (1 000).
The cost of fighting these fires ran into hundreds of millions.
“Fire fighting costs… for the country add up to R411m. (This includes) suppression costs, operational costs, flying costs and having people available to fight fires,” he said.
The R411m was for veld and forest fires only, and excluded the cost of fire brigades.
Private landowners and others, including government, lost an estimated 210 000ha a year to fire.
Must be managed
“Probably about 70% of this should burn, but in a way that doesn’t damage property and land. It must be managed. This needs integrated fire management.
“At this stage, of that 210 000ha, a lot of it is burning at the wrong time, at the wrong places, and causing huge damage – estimated at about R21m a year in direct costs, including cattle, land and fynbos,” he said.
Downstream costs totalled R255m.
“At the end, if you add it all together, you’re looking at… a total cost of R4.305bn.”
Addressing the problem of veld and forest fires could equate to huge savings for the country, Heine said.
Fires in the past two years have been particularly “devastating” ones for the forestry industry, department of water affairs official Winston Smith told the committee.
“The commercial forests lost about 35 000ha in 2005, and there was similar damage the year before.
“We’ve lost in Tsitsikamma about 36 000ha, and in Outeniqua about 14 000ha, and in the Western Cape about 74 000ha. In total, about 124 000ha that has been ravaged by fire,” he said.
WoF is a government poverty-relief programme aimed at providing training and work opportunities, and creating a national network of firefighters. It was launched in 2003.