Firefighters take flak over flattening fynbos

An ecologist has taken firefighters to task for driving fire engines onto a Tokai Park trail to get to a fire.

Firefighters have been accused of being too heavy-handed in their efforts to douse a fire in Tokai Park.

The firefighters put out the fire, but they lit another one under Friends of Tokai Park chairman Dr Tony Rebelo who criticised them for driving their fire engines over critically endangered Cape Flats sand fynbos in the process.

Dr Rebelo, an ecologist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), says wildfires at this time of year are rare, but the deep tyre tracks left behind by the fire engines in the protected area could have a long-lasting impact on the fynbos and the wetland.

“Such cowboyish behaviour cannot be condoned in critically endangered ecosystems. Why are there not guidelines?” asked Dr Rebelo.

The fire vehicles entered the park through the entrance in Orpen Road on Sunday July 18. There is 500m of damaged track leading to a copse of charred eucalyptus trees. The path is popular with runners, walkers, dog walkers and an adjacent sand trail is used by horse riders. Cyclists use both trails.

Tokai Park falls under the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) which is managed by SANParks.

Frans van Rooyen, manager of TMNP, said that while damage to the trail was unfortunate, the fire could have spread, possibly to nearby homes, if it had not been for the efforts of the firefighters.

The Newlands fire base had responded to reports of the fire at about 7.50pm. The reports included pictures on WhatsApp. “These showed a fire which was escalating at an alarming rate with very real risk to neighbouring property and the adjoining veld,” Mr Van Rooyen said.

“The narrow tracks forced responding vehicles, heavy 18-ton fire tenders, to straddle the edges of the tracks.”

One of the vehicles had become bogged down in the water-logged track.

“The fire, due to warm windy conditions, was spreading and had started crowning up mature gum trees forcing vehicles to use alternate routes in the area to access the fire,” said Mr Van Rooyen.

The fire had been contained several hours later, but it had taken another two hours to get the fire engine out of the mud.

However, Dr Rebelo said the firefighters could have walked into the area to fight the blaze “like they do everywhere else”.

He added: “If early enough, one or two beaters can control a fire. One only needs heavy equipment for an established fire.”

Mr Van Rooyen stressed there was inherent fire risk in the highly flammable fynbos vegetation – a risk aggravated by the presence of invasive alien plants that also tended to be very flammable.

TMNP rangers and fire staff had already started fixing the track, but drier weather was needed to complete the work, he said.

On Sunday July 25, the Bulletin found deep ruts in the horse trail alongside the damaged edging of the track. Dead branches lay across parts of the horse trail and sandbags filled ruts in the track and at edges next to a water ditch.

Parkscape chairperson Nicky Schmidt said the Tokai District Riding Association had spent two weekends working with TMNP to reduce flooding of the sand track, including laying down sandbags, but these had been moved.

“We appeal to the public to please not remove sandbags when they find them at key points. They are there to prevent flooding and in turn prevent erosion,” she said.

TMNP rangers and fire staff have started repairing the trail but drier weather is needed to finish the job.
The burnt area next to the wetland.