First month of fire season – 15 000ha lost

At least 326 wildfires were recorded countrywide during June, the first month of the possibly six-month long fire season.

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The fires collectively destroyed an estimated 15 000ha of veld and commercial forest plantations. Linton Rensburg, spokesperson for government’s Working on Fire programme, said KwaZulu-Natal led the statistics with 115 fires recorded, followed by Gauteng with 66, Eastern Cape with 59 and Mpumalanga with 41. Free State had 30, Limpopo six and North West five.

“Some were due to flare-ups from firebreaks, others to communities burning on high fire danger index days and others to hot, dry and windy weather,” said Rensburg. Commercial forestry company Sappi reported that in the first week of the season some of its plantations in southern KZN had been burned by fires fuelled by winds in excess of 100km/h.

“Conditions were so dangerous that the usual aerial support used to assist in fighting fires was unable to fly,” said spokesperson Zelda Schwalbach. “Most of the fires were suppressed, with not too serious loss. An exception was a fire on the Sappi Sutton plantation close to Ixopo, where in excess of 1 000ha of plantations were burnt in and around the plantation.”

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Kosie van Zyl, advisor to farmers’ union Agri SA, said some fires had been started by sparks from faulty Eskom power lines, while others had spread into the veld from unattended smouldering municipal dumps. “There’s a big problem with the making of firebreaks because we did not have a very cold winter thus far and the grass that acts as fuel for burning firebreaks is not dry enough to burn properly,” said Van Zyl. Agri SA had not had any reports of wildfire-related human or animal deaths, or of major damage to buildings and machinery yet.

Another union, TAU SA, reported that some of its members had complained of the state and “weekend farmers” not implementing the necessary measures to ensure that veldfires did not spread from, or to, their land. “As always, it is farmers who have to go and put out the fires on state land. The local fire brigade drives around a bit but doesn’t help too much,” said Nelspruit farmer Ockert Steyn.

Farmers in Machadodorp in Mpumalanga felt aggrieved by the fact that many absentee landowners did not belong to local fire protection associations (FPAs), burn firebreaks or have proper fire-fighting equipment, stated TAU SA. Van Zyl was pleased that the new Veld and Forest Fire Amendment Bill would force all landowners, including managers of state land, to join FPAs or risk facing strong legal action.

Concerning the remainder of the fire season, Terry Stanger, Sappi forests’ general manager of forestry, said: “As foresters, we always prepare for the worst. “All it takes is one fire on the wrong day and we could experience a disaster.” 

View the draft National Veld and Forest Fire Amendment Bill.