Veldfires in South Africa

06 June 2013

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South Africa — Veldfires (veld, forest and mountain fires in terms of the Act’s definition) are a persistent problem in South Africa. They frequently cause emergencies, and often grow to disastrous proportions. At the same time, veldfires are natural – they occur as part of the normal process of events in grassland, woodlands and fynbos, and even sometimes in natural forests. They have occurred since time immemorial, caused naturally by lightning and, in the Cape Mountains, by falling rocks. The earliest humans began to use fire a million years ago, and modern humans have been using veldfires for hunting and for managing their environment for possibly hundreds of thousands of years. We continue to use fire in veld and forest, to manage grazing and habitats, and as a measure to help prevent uncontrolled fires.

Veldfires are a problem because they pose a risk to life, property and the environment. Over time we have become more and more vulnerable to this risk. This is because urban and peri-urban human settlements steadily expand, exposing lives and homes to fires in the neighbouring veld, and simultaneously increasing the chance of veldfires being started. As our rural areas have been developed, especially through plantation forests and other plantations such as sugarcane, the risk of losses in fires has increased. As our people have become more urbanised, fewer of us understand veldfires, and so the chance of our starting them or becoming victims to fires has increased.

In addition, it is important to manage veld fires properly so that we protect environmental values. The ecosystems over about 70% of South Africa are adapted to a greater or lesser extent to the presence of fire. In these ecosystems we need to manage fire in a way that imitates nature. For this reason we must manage the control of veld fires both for the purposes of protection of people and their assets as well as for protecting our environmental values such as protecting biodiversity.

By nature, veldfires do not respect property or boundaries. Without preventive measures, veldfires will continue to burn for as long as the weather is favourable and there is vegetation to burn. Anyone owning land has the first responsibility to control fires on his or her own land. But when fires burn in severe conditions they quickly extend beyond any one property, and become a problem that cannot be handled by individuals, but can only be controlled by joint, co-ordinated efforts. Veldfires are a matter of common concern. For this reason, in South Africa as in other countries, effective policies and plans for preventing and combating veldfires must be clear about individual responsibility as well and co-operative and co-ordinated roles and responsibilities.

Previous policy and law

Indigenous people in South Africa had customary arrangements about the control and use of fire for centuries. Very soon after their arrival at the Cape in the seventeenth century, European settlers responded to the risks and mismanagement of veldfires by issuing decrees against the starting of veldfires. The first statute designed to control veldfires was the Cape Colony’s Forest and Herbage Preservation Act of 1859. This was superseded by the Forest Act of 1888, which also provide for the prevention and combating of veldfires. A series of statutes related to forests followed. Requirements for firebreaks date back to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Natal Act of 1895 required firebreaks 30 feet wide on either side of the common boundaries in about 40 districts. Statutory law governing veldfires broadened, for example with the passage of the Soil Conservation Act of 1946 (later superseded by the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act) and the Mountain Catchment Areas Act.

The Forest Act of 1984 captured much of the historical developments regarding the prevention and combating of veldfires. It included provisions for the clearing of firebreaks on common boundaries, prohibitions on fires in the open air during periods of high fire hazard, and the establishment of fire control committees.
Nevertheless, the provisions of the Forest Act reflected a historical situation that no longer exists. It was written at a time when national government had substantial capacity for management throughout most of South Africa. Since then, much of the capacity had been transferred, for example, to the provinces by devolution in 1986, and to the State corporation SAFCOL (South African Forestry Company Limited) in 1994. Current policy overall, and the relationships between the different spheres of government, require legislation designed to allow authority to be exercised at the most appropriate level, in this case, locally.

Modern development of forest policy and law

The process of developing new forest policy that would be fit to the purpose of reconstruction and development in South Africa began in late 1994. Cabinet approved the White Paper on Sustainable Forest Development, government’s policy for the forest sector, in March 1996. The goal of policy was to promote a thriving sustainable and equitable forest sector. This required new statutory law, to conform to the requirements of the Constitution, and to provide a legal framework for sustainability, as well as bringing good order to many problems arising from previous administrations. The process of developing new forest law in the new legislative framework quickly showed that we needed a separate statute for veld and forest fires, rather than having the forest law include provisions for veldfires. At the same time, Government did not want to neglect the opportunity to pass better law for the prevention and combating of veldfires and so proceeded with the National Veld and Forest Fire Act at the same time as it developed the National Forests Act.

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