How farmers can gang up on veldfires

Moses Khangale, deputy director for veld and forest fire regulation and oversight at the department of agriculture, discusses the importance of Fire Protection Associations and tells Heather Dugmore how to register one.

- Advertisement -

Why form a Fire Protection Association (FPA)?
Forming an FPA is voluntary for private landowners and mandatory for state landowners. However, FPAs are extremely important because they provide a platform for farmers to collectively meet their obligations in terms of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act (NVFFA) 101 of 1998. 

Through the FPA, farmers can pool their resources and jointly develop and implement veldfire management strategies for their areas. They can develop enforceable rules that protect all members and request advice and assistance from the state-employed chief fire-protection officer.

This saves costs, protects you in terms of any compliance your insurer might require and enhances the protection of properties from veldfires. Areas in which FPAs are active have shown a decreased risk of veldfires.

- Advertisement -

You mentioned the Act – how will an FPA benefit farmers here?
Being registered as an FPA protects you by law in terms of the presumption of negligence as stated in clause 34 of the NVFFA.

Here it says that if a person who brings civil proceedings proves they suffered loss from a veldfire which the defendant caused, or which started on or spread from land owned by the defendant, “the defendant is presumed to have been negligent in relation to the veldfire until the contrary is proved, unless the defendant is a member of a Fire Protection Association (FPA) in the area where the fire occurred.”

Also, registered FPAs can apply to the minister for possible relief from certain prevention measures, such as the preparation of firebreaks.

How many FPAs are there currently in South Africa?
There are 204. We’re not aiming for a specific number, as the size of the different FPAs varies enormously, but we anticipate an increase in the number for better veldfire management across the country.

Is there a minimum prescribed area for an FPA?
No. That’s up to the local farmers and landowners who want to form an FPA.
However, if an FPA is formed, the area covered should be uniform in terms of veldfire risks, climate and vegetation type. Most importantly, it shouldn’t be too big to hinder fulfilment of duties, or too small to hinder cost and management efficiency.

What are the basic steps in forming an FPA?

The formation and registration of an FPA is outlined in Chapter 2 of the NVFFA and FPA regulations. Guidelines can be obtained from the department of agriculture’s national and regional offices.

Simply put, though, after preliminary meetings of potential FPA members, a Notification of Intent to Register is drawn up. This must be endorsed by local government and the Department of Water Affairs’ fire advisor and regional chief director. If the notification is approved a founding meeting is held and an Application of Registration drawn up, covering the FPA’s constitution and veldfire management strategy.

For an FPA to be registered, the minister must be satisfied that the application was done in the prescribed way; that the applicants are capable of performing the duties imposed on an FPA in terms of the NVFFA; and that the applicants represent the owners in the area.

How does one apply for exemption from burning firebreaks and under what circumstances will it be given?

According to the law, anyone who owns land from which a veldfire may start t or spread is obliged to prepare and maintain firebreaks. If it’s not feasible or practical to do so in certain areas, the FPA must apply to the minister for exemption. The FPA’s fire protection officer must certify that the alternative measures provide equivalent protection to a firebreak, and/or affected owners must agree to bear the risk and provide documented proof of the alternative methods they’ll put in place.

What is the minimum prescribed equipment for an FPA?
There are no specific requirements. The FPA bases its equipment needs on the fuel characteristics of the area, vegetation type, assets vulnerable to veldfires and so on.

Does the NVFFA prescribe the minimum number of staff per farm to fight fires?
No. But it does require every owner to have adequately trained personnel who can extinguish a fire. That is, they must have gone through the Basic Fire Fighting Training course. An advanced course is also available to develop fire fighting skills. Several service providers offer these courses, including Working on Fire.

What does the law say about the burning of road reserves on national and district roads and municipal commonages?
The NVFFA doesn’t have a specific provision dealing with veldfire management here. Fire management is up to each department responsible for the roads in a specific area.

Do roads constitute a firebreak?
Yes, providing they are wide enough to prevent fires from spreading.

When does the department offer financial assistance to FPAs?
Section 7 of the NVFFA lets the minister give a loan, grant or other assistance to an FPA for any of its activities, and owners who prepare a firebreak in terms of section 14 and, in doing so, incur expenses in excess of what they would reasonably be expected to incur.