OUR BURNING PLANET
Western Cape braced for worst fire season in eight years
A fire on Saturday night in Peck’s Valley above Muizenberg, Cape Town, burnt about 60-100 hectares of mountainside, heralding the beginning of the fire season in the Western Cape, which officials warn will be the most extreme since 2015.
The 2023-24 fire season in the Western Cape is expected to be a busy one as a result of human negligence and increased temperatures as well as hot, dry and windy summer conditions that will result in bigger fires that are more intense, more frequent, and occur in areas that do not normally burn.
During the launch of the Western Cape’s fire readiness programme in Stellenbosch on Monday, the national government, the Western Cape government and its municipalities said they were prepared for the province’s fire season, which began on Saturday with a fire in Peck’s Valley above Muizenberg.
Justin Buchman, the fire manager at Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), said the cause of the fire was still undetermined, but: “Our suspicions are fairly strong that it was a church group up the mountain. They had admitted that they had made a fire. And there was nobody else in the given area.”
Anton Bredell, the Western Cape MEC for local government, environmental affairs and development planning, said about 97% of fires in the region were caused by human influence, either intentionally or through negligence.
With 2023 shaping up to be the hottest year recorded, Trevor Abrahams, the managing director of Working on Fire, told Daily Maverick that South Africa had already dealt with unprecedented winter fires and that this fire season was set to be the most severe in eight years.
“This year, we’ve already had a record fire season in the northern part of the country during winter, where provinces like the North West, which typically burns about 200,000 hectares, burnt about 1.2 million hectares, and there have been four fire-related deaths in that province. Agri SA says they lost about 400,000 hectares of grazing land and more than R1-billion worth of cattle.
“Those are huge knocks on our economy and our breadbasket; that’s what we see here in South Africa, more and more the fires are spreading into our breadbasket area. Typically, these fires used to be in the forest areas up in the north and in the Cape Fynbos zones, but now they are going into Free State, North West and Northern Cape,” he said.
In October, six soldiers died after raging veld fires swept through Kathu in the Northern Cape and spread to the Lohatla Combat Training Centre.
Abrahams said that they were experiencing fires in areas that didn’t typically burn, and the fires were more intense and more frequent.
The year the Earth burned
He said that 2023 was “the year of the planet burning, both figuratively and literally”.
There were record-breaking fires in:
- Canada, where 18.5 million hectares burned (larger than the entire Western Cape);
- Algeria, where the government reported 34 deaths in July;
- Maui, Hawaii where 97 deaths were recorded in August; and
- Greece where 28 deaths were recorded in July.
Abrahams said that in Canada, firefighters from 12 countries, including South Africa, came to assist in the battle against the wildfires.
Lulamile Nongawuza, a crew leader at Working on Fire, who fought some of the worst fires recorded in Canada for 35 days, said the fires were fiercer than any he had experienced in South Africa.
The upcoming fire season
Stefaan Conradie, a PhD student in climatology at the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town, said the good news is that the recent wet winter in the Western Cape would reduce the risk of extreme wildfire for at least the start of the coming season.
Looking ahead, Conradie said, “As temperatures increase globally, the increasing risk of hot, dry and windy conditions over the fynbos biome is expected to lead to more frequent weather conditions that could support extreme wildfire behaviour. But vegetation conditions, social factors and fire preparedness determine how future fires evolve.”
The Western Cape government this year budgeted R16-million for wildfire responses, an increase on the R14.5-million spent last year.
This excludes the budgets from municipalities and other entities, Bredell said.
“Approximately 2,300 firefighters, both professional and those on contract, will be available this season,” he said. Aerial and ground support tenders were also in place. This included four helicopters and access to another four if needed, and four fire-bombing planes and eight spotter aircraft.
TMNP’s Buchman added, “We have staff strategically based throughout [Table Mountain National Park], on standby 24/7 throughout the year. We ramp that up significantly during the summer.”
He said three phases of fire prevention were implemented throughout the year:
- In summer, controlled burning takes place.
- During winter, there are fuel reduction burns, which entail the systematic burning of invasive plant species.
- Firebreaks are cut around the borders of the TMNP and the urban periphery.
Colin Deiner, the chief director of Western Cape Disaster Management, had this advice: “The most important thing a homeowner could do is create defensible space. You should create a space where if you do have a fire, it would give the fire department the opportunity to get into that space. If you have trees and bushes, you should create a defensible space between your house and these areas.”
Fire-prevention measures include keeping grass and fine vegetation around the house trimmed, ensuring gas bottles are stored in a secure environment away from heat sources, and keeping a fire extinguisher in a place that is easily accessible, said Cape Nature. DM