Fighting fire with communities’ support

The devastation caused by veld fires in the Free State was evidence that a new approach to the management and suppression of fires was needed, according to Malcolm Procter, the department of agriculture’s deputy-director of Forest and Veld Fire in Bloemfontein.

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At the Free State Umbrella Fire Protection Association (FSUFPA) media day in Dewetsdorp recently, Procter said that the effects of veld fires were far-reaching, and that food security and the livelihoods of people were at stake.

The ability to use fire is one of the essential traits that sets people apart from animals. However, laws designed to prevent and control fires have thus far failed.

Technological advancements, such as improved firefighting equipment, fire- modelling techniques and communications should by now have had a decisive and positive effect on firefighting. Indeed, this would have been the case if the problem was only a matter of fire suppression, especially when considering the corresponding global increase in firefighting budgets.

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However, the reality is quite different, and the problem is much more complex than simply improving the effectiveness of firefighting.

Free State Fire statistics
During 2014, the Free State lost 422 258ha to veld fires. If calculated at the province’s official carrying capacity of 1MLU/6ha, this means that grazing for 70 376 cattle was destroyed. The fires thus resulted in the potential loss of 19,7 million kilograms of meat, and if 250g of meat per meal is considered an adequate portion, this equates to the loss of 78,8 million meals.

Furthermore, considering that grazing destroyed by veld fire needs at least two growth seasons to recover fully, the above statistics could very well be doubled.

The extent of the fire problem demonstrates that traditional methods of improving fire services have not enabled us to adequately manage the evolving fire risks faced by communities. In the Free State, many fires start and burn under conditions that permit control with minimum fire damage.

However, depending on weather and topography, a small group of fires can become large and form conflagrations that are extensive and destructive. The development of these conflagrations is largely the result of the difficulty involved in stopping the head of a hot, fast-running fire, fuelled by dry conditions and strong wind.

We therefore need a paradigm shift to follow a more risk-averse approach, which primarily strives to reduce fire risk through safety and prevention initiatives. As with other aspects of natural resource management, the approach to managing veld fires has over the years evolved as scientific understanding, and the broader context surrounding management decisions, has changed.

Fire research and community firefighting
Prior to 2000, the primary focus of most fire research was on the physical and ecological aspects of fire. However, as more people moved into fire-prone areas, interest in understanding the relevant social dynamics developed.

Over the past decade, emergency management organisations have begun to acknowledge that a community’s ability to respond effectively would support the reduction of fire risks. Thus, fire service organisations have adopted a risk management approach with greater emphasis on prevention and community education.

This focuses on involving communities in partnerships with emergency service organisations to deal more effectively with potential fire risks, and emphasises the need for communities to take greater responsibility for their own safety.

It is now widely recognised that fire services are unlikely to provide every property with protection during major incidents and that effective community response is essential to ensure the safety and protection of properties.

In the past, there has been little consideration of what effective community preparedness entails. Similarly, there is limited information about how communities perceive wildfire risk, their capacities to respond, or their needs in relation to emergency events. Recent research provides us with an understanding of these issues and a basis on which to develop more effective approaches.

While there is no doubt that emergency assistance will remain necessary, the potential consequences of increasingly severe hazards indicate that much greater investments are needed to reduce the risk of social and economic disasters.

The challenge for risk and disaster management in the coming years is to find effective means by which a more comprehensive and multi-sectoral participation of professional disciplines and public interest can contribute to reducing disaster risk.

Accomplishing this goal requires both a political commitment and public understanding to motivate local community involvement. It is in no one’s interest that the resources on which all societies depend must first be lost to hazards before their value is deemed worthy of protection, replacement or repair.

Dry veld, high fuel load, wind: a dangerous blend
Veld fires occur mostly during winter from early May, especially after the first frost and before the first spring rain.

The season usually lasts until the end of November, although veld fires as late as December are not unknown. During this period, the winter climate and daily weather patterns are dominated by high-pressure cells that cause deep atmospheric inversions, amongst other conditions.

Wind is the most dynamic variable influencing fire behaviour. It provides more oxygen to the fire front, and affects the rate at which fuel dries ahead of the fire front. Through radiation of the flames, the fuel in front of the fire is pre-heated, thereby preparing it for ignition and promoting the further spread of fire.

The finer and drier the fuel, the faster it will burn. As air temperatures are normally cool during the night, fuel moisture will be higher, and fires can be more easily controlled. However, as temperatures increases after sunrise, and especially between 12pm and 3pm, fires usually reach a peak.

As strategic planning should be based on historical data, it is important that all centralised and accurate fire data is kept on record in the Free State. However, there is no incentive for landowners to provide this kind of information, as membership of the Fire Protection Associations is voluntary. – Annelie Coleman