Forest fire hazard

There’s a strong risk of a repeat of the 2015 south peninsula fires, warns John Green, of the Zwaanswyk Association of Property Owners (ZAPO).

He is not alone. Nicky Schmidt, of Parkscape, says the recent heatwave, drought, extensive spread of alien vegetation and resulting slash, and climate change with its extreme weather conditions all make the fire risk very real.

Mr Green is a former president of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa. He said Zwaanswyk residents were appealing to landowners and mountain authorities to clear the Steenberg, Tokai, Constantiaberg mountains of the alien vegetation that has sprouted since the March 2015 fire.

They want landowners to remove alien slash piles which they say pose an extreme fire hazard.

Pam Gorre, who heads the environmental portfolio for both ZAPO, and the Tokai Residents’ Association, said people living next to the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) were very worried about the upkeep and width of the firebreaks.

“The amount of tinder, dry slash and alien infestation is a huge fire risk. Residents have taken what precautions they can without destroying established gardens and trees which provide shade and home for birds,” said Ms Gorre.

When the Bulletin sent questions about veldfires and firebreaks to the City’s media office, it replied: “This area is managed and protected by TMNP, and your query should be referred to them.”

But after the Bulletin pointed out that fire spreads to residential areas, City fire chief Ian Schnetler said it was the responsibility of landowners, including residential properties, to provide firebreaks, if necessary.

Mr Schnetler said many lessons had been learned from the 2015 fires to ensure future fires never reached that magnitude.

Ecologist and chairman of the Friends of Tokai Park, Dr Tony Rebelo feels that while there is little reason to worry about fire in fynbos, the forestry plantations remain a serious risk.

He said the next big fire was only expected to take place around 2030, when the veld again approached 15 years of age. Currently, the veld would not hold a sustained fire, he said.

“The pine and gum plantations have been removed, and the aliens are being controlled, so a fire of that magnitude and ferocity will no longer be possible. Future fires will be more manageable fynbos burns,” said Dr Rebelo.

He said fires were essential for fynbos.

“Without fire, there would be no fynbos. It’s therefore part of SANParks management of the national park.”

There were no major piles of slash at lower Tokai; the slash that was there was needed to fuel prescribed burns to restore the fynbos, he said.

At upper Tokai, where the alien infestation after years of pine plantations was really bad, dense wattles were being cleared.

The slash there was needed for slope stabilisation and was positioned across the slopes to minimise fire spread. The stabilisation slash rows would have mostly decomposed by the time the slopes of Tokai had enough fuel for another large fynbos fire.

Dr Rebelo said the best way to prevent wildfires like those that ravaged the Garden Route was to do prescribed burns to less the fuel load in the veld. Such a burn, he said, would not be needed in upper Tokai before 2030 because of the 2015 fire.

“It’s all about fuel. Fynbos won’t burn if there is not enough fuel, that is until after three to five years. Until 15 years, the veld fires are reasonably easy to manage under all but the worst conditions.

“After 20 years, fires will be unstoppable and uncontrollable under even average conditions,” he said.

Dr Rebelo said landowners should control aliens on their properties. Pines, gums and wattles were a serious fire risk.

“It was these that carried the fires into Knysna town causing so much destruction,” said Dr Rebelo.

Human memory was short and by 2030 most people would have forgotten all the lessons learned.

The irony was that many spending money now on fire protection, when it was least needed, would have grown complacent by the time fynbos fuel loads were sufficient for the next wild fire, said Dr Rebelo.

“At present less than 15% of TMNP is being burned in prescribed fuel-reduction burns. Fortunately, at present, most of the park is less than 15 years old, especially in the southern suburbs, but there are significant areas on the Back Table, Newlands and at Cape Point that are older than 40 years and a dire fire risk.”