Friday, 15 August 2014

Fighting Fire in the Fynbos

Wildfires are spectacular forces of nature, and terrifying if you encounter one live. Living in the Fynbos you are living with fire. Fire is part of the natural cycle of life and the plants are adapted to it. However, we live in changing times – and in the eastern Fynbos fire is becoming more frequent and burning over wider areas. Part of this is due to changes in our weather which are causing increases in Fire Danger Indices (FDI), partly due to increased lightning strikes.

I learnt at Fynbos Forum last week, increased summer rainfall means that the southern and eastern sections are experiencing more summer rain and this means fuel loads are recovering more quickly.  Generally, this is all of great concern to landowners, because fire is a threat to human safety, housing, crops and livestock. Furthermore, landowners are liable for damage from fires that spread from their property to neighboring properties. In the case of those living near pine plantations, this can mean millions upon millions of rands. There is much concern from Fynbos ecologists that as a result the fire cycle in Fynbos is being interrupted because fires are suppressed, and in situations like this Fynbos is then replaced by forest.  We now have a situation where much Fynbos in the lowlands in association with human habitation and agricultural activity is under burnt, while on the other hand the mountain regions are experiencing too frequent fires. Neither extreme is good for Fynbos.

Legally, landowners need to have fire breaks and adequate fire fighting equipment on their properties. However, one hike into the Cape Fold mountains and you will realise that the feasibility of creating and maintaining fire breaks many kilometres long over steep terrain intersected by deep gorges is completely impractical. Likewise, accessing remote areas where fires can result from lightning strikes or even rockfalls is sometimes impossible.

Landowners across South Africa are now being pushed to join Fire Protection Associations, where resources are pooled, and fire control can be done on a bigger scale, thus mitigating the need for each landowner to have fire breaks. However, these associations cost a lot of money to be a part of and many land owners are sceptical of the benefits they bring. For instance, as part of the big fire we experienced in 2012 we received no support from the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association (SCFPA). Subsequently, some landowners in the area did receive compensation for fencing damage.  More recently, they have arranged for insurance premiums to be reduced for members of fire protection agencies. It is clear that these associations are now starting to work harder to justify membership.

We experienced our first tangible benefit of being members of the SCFPA this week when they sponsored a one day basic fire fighting course at Avontuur.  A massive amount of background theory was assembled by Dirk Smit of SCFPA, and presented along with interesting anecdotes by local fire-fighter Wayne Young. Of course, the real entertainment was then setting the veld on fire and letting the trainees get to grips with the mopping up operations.

Here are a few highlight photos:

Fire is a big threat to property, causing huge damage every year around the world

Fight Fire with Fire: creating a backburn is one way to control a fire. 

Hot work: layers of protective clothing couple with extreme heat mean heat exhaustion and fatigue are a major problem when fighting fires.

Caught in a fire: hopefully the carbon monoxide kills you first, as death by fire is the most painful way to die

Young or old, black or white - you all get together when it comes to fighting fires

Firefighters: all that stand between you and the flames

Wayne Young: remembering the on-average five fire-fighting helicopter pilots that die each year


  1. We've had one huge fire on our mountain since we came to live in Porterville. Very grateful that Working on Fire now has a unit based in our town!

  2. As a member of the SCFPA I would like to give my feedback on the 2012 fire that the Author is referring to and would like to mention that all the Working on Fire fire fighters were brought in by the SCFPA on their costs and the relieve teams as well so they played a huge roll during the fire of 2012. I were on the fire for 5 days and we flew over your farm a couple of times and yes we pay a very low premium for getting all the cover and training for under less than your DSTV cost you a year .Next time take part in the fires then you will know what is going on

  3. I think my in-post link to the documentation of the brave actions of the Eden District Municipality fire fighters and Working on Fire teams: also documents my participation in the fighting of the fire. If SCFPA flew over in a helicopter, we certainly were not aware of this, and we had no communication with the SCFPA representative of the time - Mark van Niekerk regarding their participation. From our perspective, SCFPA were not involved and if they were they did not communicate this to us. I have kept Bermon's post as it is indicative of the mafia protection racket analogy that some land owners regard the SCFPA as.

  4. To be fair to SCFPA I have posted an email response from the event organiser Dirk:

    Good day Alan
    Firstly I would like to thank you for the article/blog for it does place focus on the problems we all face (unwanted wild fires and prescribed/planned fires).

    Secondly I am a bit concerned that in some way the information which was placed in the article actually could have a negative impact on the promotion of the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association (SCFPA). Obviously people differ especially on the way they perceive something. Last mentioned is mostly influenced by the amount of knowledge they have on a specific subject. I say this not with the intention to criticize the information but to clear up some details. It is vital that a person and in particular SCFPA members understand the bigger picture in order to make informed decisions.

    Obviously no organization is perfect and in particular our organization is definitely a “work in progress”. We are open for criticism and try to facilitate better services and cooperation. One must remember the SCFPA plays an strategic role with regards to decision making processes within Integrated Fire Management (IFM). We have facilitated better responses to wild fires and ensured that we have more resources available to assist during wild fires. Up until now we have established seven (7) SCFPA Fire Bases with a compliment of +- 22 trained fire fighters per base. This amounts to +-154 additional firefighting resources which can be made available at a wild fire especially during extended attacks. What most of the members do not understand is that these teams have an financial implication which the SCFPA must manage. We need to manage these teams and provide management, computers, cell phones, transportation ext. to these teams. This money do not come from government but from partnerships with other strategic partners and membership fees. It will be mind- blowing if I should make figures (money) available to specify how many money have been spend to get these extra resources. We had to attend meetings after meetings. Motivation upon motivations had to be written supported with statistics and risk assessments to finally get these teams. One must look at the bigger picture. The end result is the following:
    <7 SCFPA fire bases list omitted for post brevity>

    1. comment continued:

      These teams will most probably not be able take part in the initial attack on some of the wild fire which may occur, although thy have done so many times. It all depends on the distances they have to travel to the wild fire. But I can assure you should there be a large fire where extended attacks are needed these teams will be of great help. In future we would like to establish Remember these mentioned teams are allocated to the SCFPA and not to any other organization and they are there to support our members. The problem is that some members cannot comprehend this. Altought WoF is paying these fire fighters salaries we are responsible for the rest (providing management, vehicles and administrative support). If you had a large fire and 40 people are needed on the fire line at some time these people need to be replaced and suddenly you must have an extra 40 people. Now we can assist with this and supply these resources. This is only one advantage not to mention the vehicles we are financing. Remember nobody assisted us with this. We go out to get donations and manage membership fees in such a way that we can supply these services to the bigger area. I can without a doubt say that it is solemnly the doing of the SCFPA management who facilitated these teams on behalf of our members. Obviously we utilize membership fees to help us on the way (attending meetings, participating in the recruitment of the fire fighters, supplying the salaries of the base managers…). It is very difficult to quantify the monetary value which we have brought into the SCFPAs domain but I can assure you it is millions of rand’s worth. Not even taking into account the aerial resources which we facilitated and co-manage.

      On ground level we try to train as much as possible people to act as an first respond to wild fires. Only last year we trained more than 160 people. The SCFPA started the initiative. During 2012 we trained c55 people in the Uniondale FMUs area. Last week c70 people received training. This was the vision and initiative of the SCFPA. Concordia Training Centre quoted the SCFPA +- R 650,00 per person to present the same course. We do it for free (obviously there is costs involved like travelling fees for myself and Wayne Young and printing of course material etc.). Since 2012 c120 farmworkers have been trained by the SCFPA x R 650,00 = R 780 000,00! Most of our members generally pay between R 250,00 to R 500,00 per year membership fees. If I visit one member in a specific area It mostly cost the SCFPA +- R 200,00 per visit (diesel).

      Since the last three years we have place a massive amount of awareness material into the SCFPAs domain (billboards along the N2 route, FMU Boards, awareness pamphlets ext…). This with the aim to reduce the occurrence of unplanned/unwanted wild veld fires. The fact is the mount of incidents of negligence have already reduced.

    2. comment continued:

      There are so many benefits the problem are that most of the times the landowner do cannot see what effort we put in on a day to day basis. They do not understand that we try to facilitate better resources and cooperation between strategic partners with the aim to reduce the occurrence of unwanted veld and forest fires from local to provincial and national level. We are the largest FPA in the country and achieved many successes so much that other FPAs are following our lead. How do we do this?

      Again it is very difficult to quantify these successes but I can assure you that strategically most of the members get more than their worth for the R 250,00 per year membership fees.

      I am not sure which fire you are talking about but I can assure you that we did provide assistance at the fire (2012). Maybe you did not see us but we dispatched one of our teams to the fire which was placed under the command of the local fire services. Many people do not understand how the system works. The teams which are allocated to us cannot be dispatched without our notice or authority. A partner or member will phone us and ask for assistance and then we will dispatch the teams if necessary. Sometimes we dispatch the teams to fires even if nobody requested them because we can foresee that the specific fire could be a threat to our members. Remember some WoF teams are also allocated to some other organizations (Sanparks and Cape Nature), I cannot speak on their behalf but there is a distinction between these teams and we are only responsible for the teams which are allocated to us. Currently we are the organization who manages the most teams in this region and we are a registered non- profit company. How did we achieve this?- resilience, vision and biting the bullet. In no way are the SCFPA without fault. Obviously we would like to meet with our members each and every day. We would like to visit them frequently and give advice were possible. There are so many levels of participation and we try to meet as much of the demands whilst working on our long term vision.

      I think what I am trying to say is that maybe it may sound as if we do not present any tangible benefits to our members but actually we have been doing so from the inception/establishment of the SCFPA. The way your article portrays us (my opinion) is that we are not very effective and did not really bring much to the table. If I have read it the wrong way then I apologize. But in essence we need to promote IFM and get as much as possible landowners on board. If only I can get a member’s neighbour who is not an FPA member to become a member and by doing so creates awareness and he/she might think twice to act negligent the FPA member already received much more than he bargained for a R 250,00 membership fee.

      I do not which that you must make amendments to the article in any way. We do need criticism. But people tend to misinterpret some information and it could harm the bigger picture or vision.

      Again thanks for your participation and patience. At this moment (while I am writing this letter) 4 SCFPA dedicated management staff members are busy supporting an operation (wild fire suppression) in Riversdale area. We are playing a key role in establishing the Incident Command Centre. The Ladismith Fire Base which falls under our command already have been dispatched to the fire as I am writing. We have place three of our fire bases on standby to dispatch to Riversdale if necessary. The SCFPA Riversdale Fire Base have been on the fire line since this morning. Never before were there so much extra resources in the area. It took some time to get to this point but we are working with a collective goal and that is to render a better service to our members and even non-members. In the last 2 hours we have made numerous calls to ensure that the members and non-members who are involved with this wild fire get the best assistance possible.


      DC Smit
      SCFPA Regional Manager: Eastern Region


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