Cape fires worst in a decade

Cape fires worst in a decade

21 March 2009

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South Africa —

This year’s fire season is the worst the province has seen in nearly a decade, and it’s not over yet, say Western Cape fire and conservation authorities.

On protected land alone more than 90 000 hectares have been ravaged by fire, with extensive damage also occurring on farms and other public and private land.

In the Cape Metro, the number of fire-related incidents were up by about a third, reported city fire chief Ian Schnetler.

Over the summer, severe fires have burned in the Overberg, Boland, Peninsula, city, Swartland and Cederberg.

Besides wreaking havoc and wasting millions of rand in damages and fire-fighting expenses, the blazes have been both beneficial and damaging to large areas of fynbos.

“We cannot afford this to happen every five years,” said CapeNature’s executive director of operations, Fanie Bekker. “Not only ecologically; the risk in terms of human lives is just too big. We must learn from this.”

While Provincial Disaster Management said it was difficult to give statistics for the whole province, both it and Bekker agreed this had been the worst season since 2000.

Bekker estimated that 65 000ha of protected land burned that year, but extensive burns throughout the province pushed the damage up significantly.

Another bad year was 2006, when over 135 000ha of CapeNature property were ravaged, but both Bekker and Disaster Management said this season and 2000 were worse, when private and other public land was taken into account.

Bekker said a fire summit would be called after the fire season for “the entire fire family” to discuss how veld and fires can be better managed: “My vision is for a proper fire management action plan that integrates all the relevant authorities and landowners.”

University of Cape Town climate specialist Peter Johnston confirmed that the past few months had been particularly dry and windy: “We had good rain in December, but the average rainfall has been below average every month since. There is no question that the veld was ready to ignite.”

According to Provincial Disaster Management, good rains in winter and spring encouraged vegetation growth, which provided a bigger source for fuel in the dry months which followed.

In contrast, the number and severity of fires recorded in Table Mountain National Park is down dramatically on previous years, said Table Mountain fire manager Phillip Prins.

The blaze that burned 500ha across Devil’s Peak this week was the park’s only notable burn this season. Yet 4 000 of the park’s 25 000ha burned in the 2007/2008 season.

“But you must remember, the fire season is not over,” said Prins.

“We are usually going till about mid-May before the fire teams can start standing down.”

He could not give a reason for the decrease in the Peninsula, but noted that the park officials were patrolling regularly and working hard to detect burns early and stop them before they spread.

While ecologists have emphasised that regular burns are crucial to fynbos regeneration – and some have called for the Veld and Forest Fire Act to be reviewed in this light – Bekker added that intensive, extensive and overly frequent burns could be damaging to fynbos ecosystems and water catchment areas.

“When such large areas of catchments burn, especially under extreme weather conditions and the presence of alien vegetation, it may have a significant detrimental impact on soil structure and its water retention potential. This may lead to a significant reduction in the potential of our catchment areas to produce a sustainable flow of water with an acceptable quality.”

He said this could reduce water run-off by as much as 50percent. And he said the impacts of fires were predicted to become more severe over bigger areas and for longer periods due to climate change.

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