More veld fires?

More veld fires?

4 October 2008

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South Africa — Current weather conditions mean more veld fires could flare up, the Water Affairs and Forestry ministry said on Wednesday.

“The conditions that led to the current spate of veld fires still persist and the fires could flare up again,” said minister Lindiwe Hendricks.

She said, according to the weather service, the fire danger index for the remainder of the week continued to be moderate to high.

Seven of South Africa’s nine provinces have been affected by over 100 fires fanned by strong winds.

Hendricks said she was saddened to hear that there were indications that some fires might be the result of arson.

“Together with the police services these matters will be investigated and offenders will be prosecuted.”

She said people were urged not to accidentally cause fires through negligence and they needed to gain permission from local authorities for the burning of veld.

Motorists should also drive carefully in areas where there were fires, as visibility was compromised by smoke and there might be debris on the road.

The extent of damage

Hendricks said hectares of forest belonging to the department had been destroyed in Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumulanga where some fires were still raging.

Damage to sawmills and timber in the Eastern Cape and Mpumulanga meant businesses and people’s livelihoods were affected.

She said 13 of the department’s Working on Fire (WoF) crews had been deployed in Mpumulanga and 13 in Kwazulu-Natal. Three crews had been working in Limpopo, four in Gauteng and three in the Eastern Cape.

Although WoF had to sometimes suspend aerial operations temporarily due to strong winds, most fires were now either under control or totally extinguished.

In Mpumalanga, Hendricks said, 13 000 hectares of forestry had been destroyed in 49 fires across the province.

Agri-Mpumalanga committee manager Esme Jacobs said a 52-year-old farmer’s wife died in her house in Amersfoort in the province in a fire.

She said she only had details so far of damage in the Amersfoort area, where 609 cattle, 2070 sheep, 52 horses and goats and 253 wild animals were killed.

Some 36 000 hectares of land was destroyed.

Thirteen farmworkers’ homes and two farmhouses were burnt down completely and one was partially damaged.

R45-million in damages in the Free State

Free State agriculture department senior manager T J Masiteng said it was roughly estimated that the province had suffered about R45-million in damages.

He said a total of 47 000 hectares of land and 253 hectares of cash crops were destroyed.

A total of 845 sheep, 120 game, 63 cattle and nine horses were killed in the fires.

More than 600 kilometres of fences were damaged and 22 000 bales of fodder destroyed. Four tons of maize was destroyed, along with 3.5 kilometres of water pipeline.

The north eastern parts of the Free State, forming the Thabo Mofutsanyane district, were most affected by the fires.

Agri-Free State CEO Henk Vermeulen said many farmers had lost everything in the fires.

The wind was so strong that the fires spread in many directions, burning down everything.

“The only thing you can see is ashes. It’s devastating.”

Vermeulen said some of the fires were still smouldering and trees still burning. Last weekend, more than 15 different veld fires raged across the province.

Helicopters on standby for the weekend

Firefighting helicopters were on standby for the coming weekend because more winds were expected with an oncoming cold front.

CEO of Afri-North West, Boeta du Toit, said the province had suffered considerably less damage than other parts of South Africa.

Between 4000ha and 6000ha of grazing land had been destroyed in Groot Marico, but these areas were in rocky and hilly areas and not high-potential grazing land.

About 25 farms had been using the grazing land, but there had been a good rainy season in the province and most farmers could use adjacent ground until the grazing land was restored.

Forest fires in Limpopo killed a 36-year-old farmworker on Tuesday and injured a 29-year-old woman.

Transvaal Agricultural Union regional manager for the North, Marie Helm, said 30 000 hectares of land was destroyed in the Vaal Water region in Limpopo. She said the fire had been on a mountain, so people just had to let it burn.

It was not yet clear if livestock or wild animals had been killed. She said one or two sheds with fodder had been destroyed.

In Levubu in the province three sawmills were badly damaged.

A big fire had also affected the areas around Tzaneen and Hoedspruit but information about damage caused was not yet available, said Helm.

KwaZulu-Natal’s horror

Meanwhile, 34 people have been confirmed dead and dozens more injured in fires that raged across KwaZulu-Natal.

On Wednesday, the department of agriculture said assessments of the damage would still take some time.

“Some of the damaged areas are still inaccessible and there are capacity constraints in most of the provinces,” said the department in a statement.

After the assessments had been completed, the department would consolidate the reports to request funds for the affected provinces and submit them to the National Treasury for consideration.

The department said it was difficult to comment on claims of arson as controlled man-made fires occurred annually during the same season to regenerate grass.

“Throughout the years, claims as to why these fires become out of control vary from pure negligence to arson.

“The main cause of the fires has not been established,” it said.

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