Counting the cost as W Cape fires rage on

Counting the cost as W Cape fires rage on

14 February 2009

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South Africa — Fires in the Western Cape continued to burn or break out on Friday, two weeks after the first serious outbreak in Hermanus.

Authorities say the damage caused by the latest blazes have run into many millions of rands.

Conservation authorities have warned that too many fires will cause serious ecological harm and a bad impact on water catchment areas.

A blaze started in grass next to the M3 on Friday afternoon and spread into the pine forest near Rhodes memorial. Firefighters, national park officials and one helicopter team fought the burn, which city fire chief Ian Schnettler said was under control by 5pm.

Two cars crashed on the highway, possibly through “rubbernecking”, said traffic spokesperson Merle Lourens. Nobody was injured but the crash caused traffic to back up.

Schnettler could not say whether the fire was started by a cigarette butt tossed from a passing car.

Late on Friday afternoon two Working on Fire helicopters continued to battle the blaze at Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West.

“The wind has changed direction now and the fire is actually moving back toward burned veld,” said Schnettler. “But it has burned through a big area of pine plantation.”

In the Swartland, West Coast District fire chief Bertus Senekal said last week’s wildfire in the Moutonshoek-Redlinghuys region had caused damages exceeding R37 million. One farmer had lost R22m in damages.

The fire, allegedly sparked by a cigarette butt dropped by a farmworker, burned about 30 000 hectares. Farmers have called on the province to declare it a disaster area.

Further north, two helicopters, farmers and conservation officials fought a week-old Cederberg wildfire as it spread toward homes near Citrusdal yesterday. Damage from this fire is estimated at R24m.

Another fire started near Yzerfontein on Thursday night and burned 166ha of the West Coast National Park.

A farmer’s vehicle was burnt out after it became trapped in sand in the path of the fire, said park manager Xola Mkefe.

He said much of the fynbos and strandveld was over 20 years old and due for a burn.

CapeNature executive director for operations Fanie Bekker explained that while regular fires, at intervals of around 12 years, are important to ensure fynbos regeneration, too many fires proved very destructive.

“When young fynbos burns the ecological damage is severe on plant and animal species, but also on natural processes and ecosystem services.”

Damage to soil structure would lead to poorer water retention and erosion.

“Scientific research has confirmed a reduction in water runoff from these areas of more than 50% in extreme cases.”

Using the recent provincial budget allocation of R23m for catchment management, including fire and alien management, he said CapeNature was in the process of putting management strategies in place to minimise the potential impact of climate change on fire management.

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