There have been over 1 000 reported unwanted wildfires in the Western Cape since the beginning of November. Now thanks to United Nations (GEF project) climate change funding, the FynbosFire project – based in Cape Town – is develping strategies to reduce the impact of unwanted wildfire in the fynbos biome. Martin Schneinder reports.

As the Cape enters its fire season, officially from beginning December, a R38 million high-tech project to reduce climate change-induced risks in the highly vulnerable Fynbos Biome has shown significant progress.

With predicted hotter, drier weather making the world’s smallest but richest floral kingdom  more fire-prone, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) FynbosFire Project aims to enable Fire Protection Associations (FPAs) and their members, and communities close to wildland areas to more effectively manage risks to the environment, property, agriculture and water catchments in the Western and Eastern Cape.

Funded by the GEF Special Climate Change Fund, the FynbosFire project is being implemented on behalf of the South African Department of Environment Affairs (DEA) by the Kishugu Group which also implements government’s Working on Fire programme.

Co-funders include the UN Development Programme, DEA, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, FPAs and Kishugu.

Partners in the project include national government departments, the Eastern Cape government, major conservation agencies and the Fire Chiefs Working Group

The three-year GEF FynbosFire Project aims to embed the Integrated Fire Management (IFM) system which widens the traditional focus on fire suppression to fire awareness, prevention and detection, risk mapping, hazard identification, prescribed burning, resource sharing and co-ordination of  fire prevention and fighting organisations.

 

A recent mid-term review of project progress reveals that:

  • The five FPAs in the Fynbos region now have access to the state-of-the-art Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS). Developed by the CSIR, AFIS provides users with fire prediction, detection, monitoring, alerting, planning and reporting capabilities by integrating information from Earth observation satellites, weather forecast models and information, weather stations and human observations. AFIS can also be accessed via a mobile app.

AFIS enables FPAs to identify high risk fire areas and to issue SMS alerts. As soon as a fire is detected, the system provides information on the history of fires in that location, a map detailing infrastructure such as roads and property, and information on the weather, fire density and the size of the flammable area.

  • AFIS includes information being developed in another CSIR project which focuses on determining fire management information needs, improving wildland fire behaviour modelling and fire danger forecasting, and assessing climate change and wildfire risk and vulnerabilities of communities where wildland and urban areas interface.
  • Near real-time weather information is being fed into AFIS through a University of Cape Town (UCT) project involving the roll out of 20 automated weather stations in the Fynbos region. UCT’s Climate System Analysis Group has already rolled out 18 mobile phone-based, solar-powered stations in the Fynbos area where few existing weather stations provide near real-time information. In addition to supplying essential information for fire management, data provided by the new weather stations will be used to better understand climate-related aspects of fire in the Fynbos area .
  • An assessment is being undertaken of the effectiveness and financial and institutional sustainability of FPAs, which are formed by landowners and provide a vital link with national and local government and chief fire officers in the development of IFM. The objective is to establish effective, sustainable “wall-to-wall” FPAs covering the Fynbos area.
  • Accredited training courses have been developed by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University based on the needs of the Fynbos region. Already, 346 people and one team have attended 22 courses which include training in IFM and the international best-practice Incident Command System.
  • The FireWise Communities Programme is being undertaken to support communities at risk in the Wildland-Urban interface to more effectively manage risks associated with the anticipated increase in impacts of climate-induced wildland fires. Implementation of Community Wildland Fire Protection Plans is expected to benefit 2 500 households in four vulnerable areas.
  • New insurance models are being developed to cover wildfire risk and support development of IFM as well as to give poor, uninsured communities access to the insurance market through subsidies from a planned disaster risk fund.

“The technology we have been able to develop through the project gives us a vast amount of readily available information and will dramatically improve the quality of decision making in fire management,” says Dr Christo Marais, chairperson of GEF FynbosFire and the DEA chief director for natural resource management programmes, which include the Working on Fire and Working for Water initiatives. “The project will also give us the ability to roll out IFM nationally.”

Val Charlton, director of Kishugu’s Public Benefit Organisation division, says GEF funding is having a catalytic effect by enabling the project to test new technologies and undertake a series of innovative initiatives. “The strong political support we are receiving is giving the project added momentum.”