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Runaway Overberg fire started by a flare caused rejuvenation and scorched earth

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Tony Weaver is a freelance photo-journalist, environment writer, columnist and editor.

The New Year fire in the Overberg burnt a fynbos area that needed a good burn, but also burnt areas that have burnt too often, and haven’t yet recovered from recent fires. That is where the real ecological damage will happen.

As the clock struck midnight and 2018 became 2019, some idiot in Betty’s Bay fired a flare.

Throughout most of New Year’s Day, the fire the flare started burnt high in the mountains, with the Working on Fire choppers and ground crews containing it as best they could. We commented that as fires went, this was a “good fire”, burning an area that hadn’t burnt for years and needed rejuvenation.

On Tweedenuwejaar (2 January), the wind changed from west to east-south-east, and a vagrant tongue burning high in the reserve eluded the fire crews. The wind picked up and became too strong for the choppers to fly.

View from the main road, the house completely obscured by fire. Jan 3 2019, 8.15am. Photo: Tony Weaver

Our family home sits on 12 hectares of fynbos neighbouring the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve between Pringle Bay and Rooi Els, and is one of the original portions of the farm, Hangklip.

My parents bought it nearly 60 years ago, and we have survived many fires. Part of that survival is because we keep the property clear of alien vegetation, remove dead and encroaching bush, maintain a clean perimeter of buffalo grass (big enough to land a helicopter) and vetplantjies, and have planted fire-resistant indigenous trees for shade.

Late into the night, we watched the glow intensify behind us. By midnight, it was looking very scary, and at 1am on January 3, I woke the household, and we evacuated to the main road.

We’re old hands at this — pack up the treasured family photographs dating back to the 1920s, the paintings of the house and False Bay, disconnect the gas cylinders (we are completely off-grid), take down the curtains and switch on the sprinkler.

Beating a hasty retreat as the fire turns on the house, the fire trucks about to get out. Photo: Tony Weaver

At first light, three fire crews arrived — Hermanus, the Pringle Bay Fire Watch, and the Helderberg Fire Watch and set up on our lawn, and we tensely watched the fire approach. At first, it was all good, running parallel to the house along the Buffels River which runs through our land.

Then, just before 7am, the wind swung from east to full south-east, and the fire roared straight at us. We got the hell out of there, but one truck from Helderberg couldn’t get out in time. They switched on their sprayers as the fire overran the house and trapped them. We thought we had lost them, and the house.

The only serious damage to property, January 2019 fire. Photo: Tony Weaver

But they were safe, shaken, but safe — the lawn saved them. Our house survived to fight another day, just a scorch mark on one wall where a mop caught fire, a burnt picnic table, a destroyed washing line and a charred gatepost as damage.

Hangklip top shot with Pringle background after the January 2019 fire. Photo: Tony Weaver

The veld looks, to the untrained eye, devastated, a wasteland. But for us, this was an ecologically very good fire: The fynbos was in desperate need of a burn, last having burnt 15 years ago. This winter is going to be an exciting time, botanically speaking.

But at the time of writing this, the fire was raging on, having spread almost to Kleinmond in the east, Grabouw in the north, and Kogel Bay in the west. It burnt areas that have burnt too often, and haven’t yet recovered from recent fires. That is where the real ecological damage will happen when the winter rains come, and there is nothing left to hold the soil — no seedbeds, no pioneer species, just scorched earth.

And it all began with a flare. DM

This Man Friday column was first published by Die Burger, republished here with permission.

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