Ready when fires go wild?

Ready when fires go wild?

18 September 2013

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South Africa — A fire is great, when it’s nicely tucked away in your fireplace, warming you on an icy winter night, or when it’s just coals glowing under a simmering pot of potjiekos. It is quite another story if the fire is a raging inferno in the bushes, licking up everything in its path as it spreads faster than anyone can control it.

Wildfires are a nightmare for many the world over. They are a threat to life, property and the environment. We have often seen or heard screaming news headlines from around the globe, about runaway bushfires that have blazed for days, gobbling up thousands of hectares of forest, plantations, vineyards or houses. South Africa has its own share of such seemingly uncontrollable wildfires.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why we end up with bushfires on our hands. Forest and veld fires are started both intentionally and accidentally. Some veld fires are intentionally started by farmers or local authorities as they undertake prescribed burning to control vegetation growth patterns. Prescribed burning is when excess plant matter that could act as fuel for future uncontrolled wildfires is reduced by systematically burning it off. Unfortunately, some people also intentionally start fires just for the fun of it while others start fires to conceal or commit a crime.

Accidental fires can result from carelessly discarded glowing cigarette butts. Unattended camp, braai or cooking fires, burning dry vegetation in their vicinity and later spreading out of control can lead to wildfires. Similarly, faulty power lines and electric fences producing sparks could ignite dry vegetation around them. Children playing with fire or matches can start very serious and massive bush fires. Nature can also inadvertently start fires; either through lightning strikes or falling rocks producing sparks on a hot dry day, setting dry vegetation alight.

There are a few factors that affect how fast a wildfire can spread and how intense it can be. The table below summarises these factors.

Seasons have a strong bearing on wild fire incidence. In South Africa, there are two main veld fire seasons, based mainly on regional rainfall patterns. The Western Cape experiences the highest number of wild fires during the dry summer months when the vegetation is dry, day temperatures are sizzling and strong southeasterly winds are prevalent. The rest of the country experiences wildfires mainly during the dry winter months.

With all the hazards runaway wildfires can pose it goes without saying that we all need to be cautious when using or working with fire. Fire precautions that readily come to mind include the almost obvious warning, not to discard glowing cigarettes and matches. When camping or having a braai, one should never leave the fire unattended and should also completely extinguish the fire before leaving the campsite. If you have to do any burning around a farm or backyard trash burning, avoid doing so on hot, dry and windy days.

There are precautions that need to be exercised when a wildfire has already broken out. One of the foremost actions is to immediately contact your local firefighting authority. If you are trapped in a wildfire, you will need to find a spot with little or no vegetation, lie low and take deep breaths of the air close to the ground and wait until the fire passes around you. Also, avoid driving through thick smoke from a wildfire as the smoke can greatly reduce visibility. If the smoke is not too thick, put your headlights and hazards on so that you are visible to other motorists.

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