Hope that burn will save endangered fynbos

Flats Silkypuff (Diastella divaricata) flowering on Meadowridge Common. The plant species is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Meadowridge Common and the Westlake Wetlands reed beds are among seven conservation areas due for controlled burns by the City’s biodiversity management branch in February, March and April.

The actual dates are dependent on weather conditions, according to a City statement late last year.

Friends of Meadowridge Common member Caroline Voget says several rare plants have been recorded at the common in the past, but they have not been seen for a few years, and it is hoped a fire may stimulate them to germinate.

The common contains rare Cape Flats sand fynbos, including two critically endangered, three endangered, four vulnerable and four near-threatened plant species. However, fynbos needs fire for regeneration.

“Fires don’t happen often in suburbia, and without a controlled fire to stimulate new growth, it is slowly dying. The huge variety of species that have been growing at the common for decades will gradually die and disappear under introduced trees, invasive weeds and rank grass,” Ms Voget said.

A chance fire on the common a few years ago, caused by vagrants and quickly extinguished, revealed that there was still life in the soil, she said.

“In the years that followed, bulbs appeared and bushes re-sprouted, seedlings took off, and there was a burst of life in the burned area, spurring the Friends of Meadowridge Common to request that the City of Cape Town biodiversity management branch undertake a controlled ecological burn of the common. The City of Cape Town is committed to restoring as much Cape Flats sand fynbos, and, in 2019, preparations for a controlled burn went ahead.”

The controlled burn had been planned for early 2020, but a resident near the common had threatened to take the City to court over it. It was postponed again in 2021 due to objections from the same resident as well as the Covid lockdown and unusually heavy rainfall in March. Last year, the resident, still objecting to the controlled fire, prevented it from going ahead.

“There is a short window of opportunity to have a controlled burn, which can only take place at the end of summer and before the rains start i.e. between the end of February and early April,” Ms Voget said.

“The deadline was missed and the fire never took place. However, it has been rescheduled and will take place towards the end of the summer dry season.”

Mayoral committee member for spatial planning and environment Eddie Andrews said the vegetation on site was very old.

“Some portions of the Westlake Wetlands have not burnt for more than 20 years. The main aim is to rejuvenate the senescent dense reed beds, reduce fire risk and remove nutrient loads. The flush of new growth in the young reed beds encourages a variety of water birds to use the habitat. For Meadowridge Common, fire is needed to stimulate any existing seed banks and also as a catalyst for ecological restoration activities. There is not a lot of fuel on the site and a challenge will be getting the fire to carry. The remaining large pine trees will be protected from fire and not burnt,” said Mr Andrews

Ms Voget said the common’s fynbos was degraded and would need help to recover after the ecological burn. “Seeds have been collected and stored for sowing in late autumn after the fire. Likewise, cuttings were also taken and have been propagated and will be planted back during winter. Key species are Diastella proteoides, Serruria glomerata, Leucadendron salignum, Cliffortia polygonifolia, Cliffortia falcata and Salvia chamelaeagnea,” she said.

According to Mr Andrews, there is a post-fire monitoring and maintenance plan in place at Meadowridge Common. Monitoring will focus on what species germinate after the fire and any recruitment of invasive aliens, such as Port Jacksons, will also be monitored and then control programmes implemented.

“Residents are asked to close any windows and doors on the day of the fire. Please keep your pets indoors if you live very close to the sites. Also, do not hang up any washing on the day. Please also avoid the immediate area while the officials are busy with the ecological burn,” said Mr Andrews.