Our Burning Planet

CAPE INFERNOS PART 4

Navy’s land management neglect in the Cape poses risk of disastrous wildfires, say experts

Navy’s land management neglect in the Cape poses risk of disastrous wildfires, say experts
Water bombing helicopters dropping water on the Naval Signal School above Simon’s Town on 20 December 2023. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

The upkeep of land within South African Navy premises has been criticised, with neighbours living near navy compounds describing the areas as neglected and devoid of crucial firebreaks, while being infested with invasive alien vegetation.

The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) said on Friday, 16 February, that the last time it assisted the South African Navy in making firebreaks and clearing alien vegetation at its properties in the Cape Peninsula was at least four years ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The SA Navy is the landowner but the responsibility for maintaining and clearing the land lies with the DPWI. 

The consequences of this negligence are severe and pave the way for potential wildfire catastrophes capable of devastating ecological sanctuaries, infrastructure and human habitations, said Eugene Moll, a professor in the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Read Daily Maverick’s coverage of the Western Cape wildfires:

Residents who live near the South African Naval Armament Depot (Sanad) above Simon’s Town, described the land as “neglected” and “overgrown”. They said they saw no evidence of firebreaks and the land was infested with alien vegetation.

A resident who lives near the Silvermine Military Base in Muizenberg said, “The land is not managed in any way. My understanding is that that is true of a number of naval areas.”

navy land wildfires

Steenberg Peak from outside the Silvermine Miltary Base, showing overgrown vegetation near the firebreak on 13 February 2024. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

navy land wildfires

Invasive alien vegetation on SA Navy land at Silvermine Military Base on the slopes of Steenberg Peak. (Photo: Supplied)

“Navy land in the peninsula is completely neglected. They haven’t done their firebreaks for years now. They don’t do any alien clearing — nothing,” said Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association (CPFPA) manager Philip Prins.

City of Cape Town Speaker Alderman Felicity Purchase told Daily Maverick, “Once a fire gets out of control, it’s a risk to everybody on the urban edge — so it’s important that the navy does their bit in keeping their … fire risk low.

“But we are continually astounded by the lack of will on their behalf to actually deal with their infrastructure problems, their clearing of aliens [and] their environmental management.”

In December, the Simon’s Town fire — which ripped through more than 3,500 hectares of land — damaged a derelict building on the grounds of the SA Navy. Purchase said that if it wasn’t for the firefighting crews and resources the damages could have been far worse because of the lack of firebreaks.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Simon’s Town blaze rips through 450ha, hundreds of firefighters continue battle

navy land wildfires

A burnt Naval Signal School building above Simon’s Town on 20 December 2023. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

She said it became clear that the navy had not cleared the area inside the armament depot for years, which posed a risk to the armament depot and properties on the urban edge.

“They didn’t do the inside clearing of alien vegetation nor did they do their firebreaks, so that’s a typical example of the risk, and that fire then went from there, it went down into Simon’s Town. And it also went from there … across the mountain to the [SAS Simonsberg] Signals School.

“It’s important for us all to reduce our fuel load, and the fact that they hadn’t reduced their fuel load was a serious problem for the navy… If it wasn’t for the city … they could’ve quite easily lost all the buildings at Sanad and the SAS Simonsberg Signals School,” Purchase said.

In response to questions from Daily Maverick, the DPWI shifted blame to the SA Navy, saying the navy was responsible for clearing the land allocated to it and they only assisted when asked by the navy to do so.

“If assistance is required by the SA Navy to undertake firebreaks and clearing of alien vegetation, a request to this effect will be made to the Department of Public Works. The department last assisted the SA Navy prior to Covid-19. No requests have been received thereafter,” said DPWI spokesperson Lennox Mabaso.

The City of Cape Town said that its Fire and Rescue Service had been trying to resolve the land management issues with the navy and the DWPI. 

“Due to no progress, the city opted to address a legal letter to the Department of Public Works. We are awaiting their response,” said the city’s Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson Jermaine Carelse. The letter was sent on 12 February 2024.

The DPWI said it had not received the legal correspondence from the city.

On the allegations that SA Navy land was poorly maintained and the risks this posed, Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson Edward Bosch said, “Overgrown vegetation can easily catch fire and also serve as fuel once a fire has started. Managing overgrown vegetation can reduce the risk of a fire spreading.”

A disaster waiting to happen

The UWC’s Moll said the non-compliance of the navy’s land with national fire-preventing legislation was a disaster waiting to happen. He warned of the potential for massive fires from fuel loads that accumulate when land maintenance is neglected. 

“Regarding the military land … they just don’t do any maintenance. That’s clear, and that is a huge amount of fuel. One day, if the gods are against us and the weather is against us, there could be a massive fire there that could be hugely damaging.

“Now, if you look at the legislation, they [the SA Navy] are not compliant with the legislation… To be compliant, you have to remove aliens, but they don’t do it,” he said.

In addition to the National Veld and Forest Fire Act (NVFFA) of 1998, the two Acts that need to be considered when it comes to the management of alien and invasive plant species are the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act 43 of 1983 (Cara), and the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 (Nemba).

All landowners have a responsibility and legal obligation to control invasive vegetation on their properties.

Moll said wildfires on the urban edge were a huge problem, and “we’re sitting with massive fuel loads in some of these areas, particularly above Boyes Drive and in Tokai”.

Contravening the Act

According to the NVFFA, state landowners must become members of a fire protection association (FPA) registered in the area in which the land is located. However, the SA Navy was not a member of the local FPA, said the CPFPA’s Prins.

“The SA Navy is supposed to be a member of our executive committee, but they don’t attend our meetings,” he said.

Prins said the CPFPA had approached the navy to assist it in becoming a member, but received no response.

The SA Navy did not respond to Daily Maverick’s questions sent to it on 13 February. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • George (Mike) Berger says:

    It’s par for the course. Eric Hoffer, the working man’s philosopher, said words to the effect that “maintenance was the mark of civilisation”. It reflects pride in one’s history, a commitment to the present and future and the will and self-discipline to do the hard yards.
    It’s increasingly absent in South Africa and this absence is apparent in everything the ANC does and much else in South Africa. It reflects in our politics. Thank goodness it is still alive in the DA and some segments of South African civil life. We need to build on it wherever we can.

  • Chris Lee says:

    The Navy do no maintenance on any property they occupy, full stop. Their infrastructure in Simon’s Town is literally falling down around them. Gutters hanging off buildings in Simon’s Town, Palace barracks – entire side of the building fallen off years ago; Boundary wall above the museum will probably collapse with the first winter rain, and not a drop of paint applied to any building anywhere. So – I am not in the least bit surprised that attention is not being paid to fire breaks either.

    • Ben Harper says:

      That’s because the onus and responsibility for maintenance of all buildings and facilities was moved over to DPWI together with the budgets for repair and maintenance, and now of course DPWI tries to shift the blame back to the Navy as the money has been stolen and DPWI is, like all government departments, totally inept, corrupt and non-functional

  • Stuart Wallis-Brown says:

    We hiked up to the Old Sanatorium, Signal School on Sunday from Simonstown main road. Every single Naval building we passed was in a state of collapse. Simonstown main road seems fine but from what looked like Barracks, empty broken bottles and litter everywhere, and other Naval buildings, complete run down, looked occupied by vagrants. No upkeep or pride of place at all. We hiked up old signal school steps. The area was burnt out from fire, more glass and trash everywhere, the Old Sanotorium and a few surrounding buildings had escaped the fire but buildings and surrounding area very run down, a very sad state. Vagrants occupying buildings and broken bottles and filth everywhere. This is the reason for so many fires around Cape Town, neglect, allowing vagrants to make fires. We had lunch with friends at house above Naval dry dock. We looked down on more broken buildings, we were told most of them had been condemned. If the Navy is so broke why dont they sell some of these buildings and repair others, clear vegetation, fix infrastructure, have some pride. Seems to me a lot of people in the Navy doing nothing.

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      “Vagrants occupying buildings and broken bottles and filth everywhere. This is the reason for so many fires around Cape Town, neglect, allowing vagrants to make fires.”

      And yet noone wants to talk about this topic, it seems to be politically incorrect.

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