As the world heats up, we can expect more unwanted wildfires warn the experts.

 

The world is getting hotter and drier and there are more wildfires than there have ever been.

All over the world, from Portugal to California, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia and South Africa, wildfires are killing more people and livestock and burning more property to the ground.

Scientists who study the weather believe that as the world gets hotter and drier, wildfires will take place more often and cause more damage. This is as likely to happen in the Western Cape as it is anywhere else.

And it is not only the scientists who are saying that the world is getting hotter – that the world’s climate is changing and that there is what we have come to know as “global warming”.

“People everywhere are feeling the effects of this change,” says Tessa Oliver,  Project Manager for Risk Reduction at LANDWORKS™ – acknowledged experts in land management and fire awareness strategies.

“Who can forget the devastating “Garden Route” wildfire that consumed Knysna, Brenton-on-Sea and the surrounding area in June last year,” says Tessa.

That wildfire, the worst wildfire in South Africa’s history, fanned by 100km per hour winds, left eight people dead, flattened close to 1 200 homes, damaged 360 more from Sedgefield to Plettenberg Bay and destroyed 7500Ha of plantations as well as burning down 17 800 hectares of fynbos and indigenous forest.

Communities, especially those living in homes that are at the border between towns and wilderness areas are the most at risk from unwanted wildfires. These are the people living at the edge of towns and neighbouring farmlands or mountainous areas. And Swellendam in the Overberg, is one of them.

“The challenges faced by this community include a lack awareness of what they can do to protect themselves,” says Tessa.

 

LANDWORKS™ has been appointed by the South African Insurance Association to conduct a “pilot” fire awareness project in Swellendam, Knysna and other vulnerable areas to alert and sensitise people to the risk that wildfire poses to their lives, their communities and their property, and to empower them to help reduce that risk.

The project will also create awareness about illegal burning and “mischief”  ignitions that are being experienced according to local fire experts.

Recently, the Overberg District Municipality warned that the region can expect warmer temperatures and more winter droughts, and that the frequency and strength of wildfires will increase, with warmer days making them more likely.

“We have been asking people who live close to forests and open areas to protect their families, homes and communities by removing “fuel load” material that can catch fire in and around their properties,” says Louise Wessels,  Manager of the Greater Overberg Fire Protection Association.

“Fuel Load” is the term wildfire fighters use to describe the dry underbrush, dead trees, dry leaves and twigs that “feed” wildfire. And a major contributor to “fuel load” is alien vegetation.

“There is no doubt that a significant factor in the intensity of the Knysna wildfire “storm” was the proliferation of alien invasive plants,” says wildfire expert Paul Gerber, Fire Advisor to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

These plants introduced to South Africa from other countries are usually bigger and faster growing than South African trees and plants. They spread faster and take valuable water and space from our own, indigenous plants.

They include pine trees, black wattle, long-leaved wattle, Blackwood, kariba weed, blue gum, Port Jackson, rooikrans all of which burn hotter and more quickly than local plants.

“These invaders have been a major driving force of unwanted wildfires in the area. And as the weather becomes hotter and drier, the invaders are likely to cause bigger, stronger and more damaging fires,” says Paul.

He warns that much of the alien vegetation that was burned down by the fires is already growing back, and he says that the risk of fires will be even worse in five to 10 years’ time “if we do not remove or control these invaders.”

By law, property and homeowners must prevent fire on their properties. This includes removing the invaders. People with invasive alien vegetation on their properties can be taken to court if this undergrowth catches fire and the fire spreads to other properties.

This is the warning from Dr. Hildegarde Fast, head of the Garden Route Rebuild Initiative that was established by the Western Cape Provincial Government to coordinate the recovery effort after last year’s fires.

You can play a part in preventing this from happening by being aware of the dangers of unwanted wildfire, by removing as much of the “fuel load” as you can from your neighbourhood, and simply by being aware.

“In short, the message that “Fire is everyone’s fight” needs to be spread as far and wide as possible if we are ever to win the struggle to prevent the loss to life and property caused by unwanted wildfire,” concludes Tessa.

The Fire Risk Reduction project aims to design and test a nationally suitable, generic awareness campaign in South Africa that will address the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) risk, help people to identify risk exposures to fire and also teach them how to manage these risks.