South Africa — The period November to April is generally regarded as the fire season in the Western Cape. Fires cause devastation and cost the economy millions each year.
Duty of the landowner
Every landowner has a duty in terms of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, 1998 firstly, to prevent and combat veld, forest and mountain fires and secondly, to stop fire spreading from their land onto adjoining land.
To do this the landowner must, by law, prepare and maintain firebreaks, and have such equipment, protective clothing and trained personnel reasonably required in the circumstances. Firebreaks must meet the requirements specified in the Act.
Failure to comply with the provisions is an offence.
Section 34 of the Act: Presumption of negligence
Section 34 states that if a person who brings civil proceedings proves that he or she suffered loss from a veldfire which the defendant caused; or started on or spread from land owned by the defendant, the defendant is presumed to have been negligent in relation to the veldfire until the contrary is proved, unless the defendant is a member of a fire protection association in the area where the fire occurred.
Incentives to comply
An important tool to assist landowners is to form and become a member of a Fire Protection Association (FPA) in terms of the Act. These FPAs must be registered.
The objectives of an FPA are predicting, preventing, managing and extinguishing veldfires.
The important benefit for FPA members is that the presumption of negligence created by section 34 does not operate against them.
A municipality or owner of state land must become a member of any FPA registered in an area controlled by the municipality or in which state land is situated. These members will often provide additional expertise to an FPA in reaching the objectives mentioned.
FPAs are empowered to develop a fire management strategy, make rules that bind its members, train its members in fire fighting, and inform its members of technological advances regarding fire prevention and suppression equipment.
The very nature of an FPA should encourage better communication and collaborative effort between landowners.
FPA must make rules to provide for minimum standards to be maintained by members regarding veldfire prevention and readiness for fire fighting and controlled burning to reduce the fire danger.
An FPA may make rules regarding the burning of firebreaks differing from those prescribed by law provided these rules are approved by the Minister.
Two or more FPAs may enter into agreements to provide assistance in fighting and extinguishing fires. These agreements may make provision for compensation to be paid for assistance rendered.
We suggest that members of FPAs approach their insurers to negotiate more favourable premium rates and lower excesses.