Our Burning Planet


The conundrum of a growing city in a poorly managed fire-dependent Cape biome


Nicky Schmidt is the founder and chair of Parkscape, a voluntary NPO focused on community, safety, environment and urban greenspace in the wildland-urban interfaces of Table Mountain National Park.

The severity of Cape Town’s fires – climate change notwithstanding – has been enabled by poor land use, poor land management and social failures which put lives and property at risk.

While Cape Town smoulders through one of the worst fire seasons on record – as several recent Daily Maverick articles describe – challenging points must be raised.

One of Cape Town’s unique attributes is the iconic Table Mountain chain and the national park that runs through the oldest parts of the city from Sea Point in the north to Simon’s Town in the south. 

Multiple suburbs, heritage properties and cultural landscapes cluster around the mountain, and flow into and from the edges of the national park.

As Cape Town – like all cities – grows, new development, formal and informal, results in even denser urban edges blurring the lines of the wildland-urban interface, exacerbating the reality of the decreasing buffer zones within the national park, and increasing the risk of fire to life and property.

Key in this is the reality that the city has grown in an endangered fire-dependent biome. And this poses – although it shouldn’t – a repeated conundrum. Fynbos needs fire to regenerate, but fire is a hazard to lives and property. Complicating this is a host of land management, land use, social and climate change issues.

For Cape Town – as with many other places around the globe – to be fire-safe in the face of a changing climate, management of wildland spaces like Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) is critical. 

Fuel reduction burns, removal of fuel loads created by invasive clearing, and trying to address deeply complex social issues are all part of a multi-faceted and costly solution. However, failure to implement these solutions is even more costly.

Fynbos needs to burn every eight to 15 years, not only for regeneration and conservation purposes, but because if left unburnt, it becomes senescent (fails to reproduce) and woody – and becomes fuel for fire. 

We have seen this repeatedly this season where fires have swept through hectares of woody fynbos that should have been burnt years ago.

At issue here, aside from the usual one of resources, is the failure of the City of Cape Town or Western Cape provincial authorities to issue burn permits – because the flip side is that burns release carbon, pollute the air, are harmful to those with existing respiratory conditions, and, when too close to the urban edge, pose a risk to structures. Wildfires, however, do much the same – only far worse.

In the wake of the exit from plantation forestry around many parts of the park (and the Boland and Overberg regions), we have seen a significant increase in not, as intended, fynbos, but thousands of hectares of unmanaged, fuel-rich, invasive infestations. 

These infestations have to be removed – they are fire-adapted and will burn, and they pose considerable risk to biodiversity and, in catchment areas, water sources.

The resultant slash from removal has to be control-burnt or physically removed. But this either isn’t happening or, where it is, it’s at too slow a rate. By and large, slash is being left in situ, fuelling wildfires.

There is an interesting point to be made here. Slash from invasive species, if not burnt in situ or removed (as is not happening), can be put to good use as biomass insulated concrete (BIC), which can be used in the building of “fireproof” housing.

I have been told that about R400-million of taxpayers’ money went into formulating this product which – after more than 100 trials – produced an Agrément-certified BIC product which shields against heat and cold, and is calculated as being carbon-neutral.

The irony is that this worthy project, which could go a long way in dealing with the slash resulting from invasive clearing, seems to have sunk without a trace.

Where species like pines and gums exist as street trees or in controlled environments such as plantation forestry and cultural landscapes, these have to be actively managed, ensuring the ground below the canopy is kept clear of woody debris (fuel) and hazardous/dead trees are regularly removed.

We have already lost two iconic Cape Town cultural landscapes to fire – Tokai Forest (2015) and the Groote Schuur Estate (2021). In both instances, better land management would have greatly reduced risk and loss.

The renosterveld plains of the Groote Schuur Estate, by way of example, were loaded with the woody debris of trees felled over 10 years ago but never removed. Understories below the iconic stone pines around Rhodes Memorial were never cleared. 

It is all very well saying “pines burn”, but those stone pines had stood for decades without burning – until proper management of the land ceased.

Then there is the current prickly matter of firebreaks that have to be cut and maintained annually to provide a barrier from which firefighters can fight back against fire and endeavour to prevent wildfires from reaching the urban edge.

Yet, as a recent Daily Maverick article revealed, “the City of Cape Town last year withdrew from a long-standing agreement with SANParks to maintain the peninsula’s firebreak network”.

The failure to maintain the firebreak networks puts residents and property on the wildland-urban interface at considerable risk – and whatever the reasons behind the withdrawal, there can be no justification for putting people at risk. 

In an election year, this rather smacks of an own goal for the City.

Aside from the issues of fuel, be it fynbos or invasive infestations, there is the compounding factor of social issues where some of the city’s most marginalised people, having dropped through the limited safety net of social welfare, live in the TMNP making fires for warmth or cooking. 

This is a complex socioeconomic problem which requires both a compassionate and proactive approach from the City and SANParks – yet this is seemingly not happening, given that homelessness in the park persists.

In addition to homeless people, the natural areas of the park draw many religious groups who seek to worship and reconnect with their ancestors in the sanctuary of nature. These groups make fires for ritual purposes, and despite efforts by SANParks to engage constructively, there seems to be little ability to control where the groups worship. 

Understanding, mediation, education and awareness are fundamental to finding solutions.

It’s unfortunate to note that the intolerant attitude of many park users and residents does nothing to help the complexity of diverse social realities – in turn fuelling a different kind of fire.

A final factor in all of this is the role of the ever-decreasing but critical buffer zones. The buffer zones were inscribed by Unesco within the Table Mountain World Heritage Site in 2004 to protect the genetic integrity of the fynbos from anthropogenic influences and climate change.

Yet we see, as SANParks has sought to meet conservation mandates and extend the core of the park, the growing reduction of the buffers over the years, thus increasing the risk to both fynbos and the safety of the urban edge.

In addition to the complexity of land use, land management and social issues, education of the public is a critical part of the solution in terms of risk and safety. 

Homes in the wildland-urban interface have to be fire-proofed as far as possible. 

People need to understand the potential impact of throwing a lit cigarette from a car window or leaving braai fires unattended – particularly in windy conditions.

Parkscape has previously presented education and awareness seminars, yet it seems that out of sight is out of mind – until the next big fire when the public becomes enlivened by fire risk.

We live in a time of climate change and in a fire-dependent biome, and it has been said we need to learn to live with fire. This is both true and untrue.

As much as we live in a fire-dependent biome, we also live in a city where we expect to be safe from wildlife incursions and fire, yet increasingly we are not. 

It might be said that we’ve had to, in a not dissimilar way, learn to live with crime, but these circumstances all arise from the same root – a lack of management and law enforcement.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t have to live with any of it, provided authorities, landowners and residents accept their relevant responsibilities.

The severity of Cape Town’s fires – climate change notwithstanding – has been enabled by poor land use, poor land management and social failures which put lives and property at risk, and have cost the City, the province and SANParks millions. 

As residents, we should be asking hard questions and insisting that the authorities are held accountable and do better, while also taking responsibility for our own risks. DM

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mark B B says:

    Excellent analysis of the wicked problem. The same threats (low to no invasive plant management, proactive fuel reduction burning, limited staff and agency capacity, no budgets, social issues) bedevil many other water source catchments and Wildlands/urban interfaces. We have to find a way to manage nature better, and fund the institutions who do it properly. It’s much much less expensive for the fiscus than dealing with the aftermath. This can be done through property rates lncreases for vulnerable areas (firebelt edges, flood or inundation zones etc), a small charge on the water price, and even carbon tax income… But the trick is to get the funds and capable managers to the most competent agency to actually deliver results… Whether SANParks, a metro, or another conservation management agency. This needs leadership, nonpartisan thinking and clever bureaucratic engineering. If only ministers and Ds G cared about these things and not photo ops or pet projects that don’t address the root causes

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    There’s a lot of truth in this article, but it goes remarkably easy on SanParks. SanParks are solely responsible for the planning and management of the TM National Park, which, by their own admission, is used as a ‘cash cow’ to support some of its other parks. At the same time the City comes in for most of the criticism [it’s NOT an election year for the City, Nicky!]. In statements like “The renosterveld plains of the Groote Schuur Estate, by way of example, were loaded with the woody debris of trees felled over 10 years ago but never removed. Understories below the iconic stone pines around Rhodes Memorial were never cleared.” we need to know WHO was responsible for this total neglect – and the sole answer is SanParks! Which certainly does not exonerate CapeNature from their responsibility in areas outside the Peninsula, but then they don’t have huge revenues from the CableWay, Cape Point, etc. to play with.

    • Lindy Gaye says:

      City of Cape Town taking a bashing again – like all the other metros are doing so well with this issue – come on DM – you’re a bit obvious.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    While I agree that some compassion is needed for the most vulnerable such as the homeless, the current trend of letting them off the hook for their responsibilities is becoming a bit much. Making a fire in the middle of the bush during the hottest time of the season is grossly negligent at best, and maliciously irresponsible at worst. It’s one thing to criminalize homeless for littering and loitering (which really does go to far), but quite another when lives are at risk. In this case some serious consequences would set a good precedent, just like I would support serious consequences for people flicking out burning cigarettes.
    And you seem to fail to mention that some fires are caused by arsonists, which should have an extremely high punishment akin to attempted multiple murders.

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Introduce the plants to other areas where they can get their FURE TREATMENT without endangering humans then let the cape beliome die a natural death

    • James Webster says:

      What a truly ignorant comment ! Only an idiot fails to understand that man only exists by virtue of the ecosystems around him.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    The ANC is the cause of every single problem we see in South Africa today.

    You can help save our country for everyone.

    Vote DA.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    Thanks for a very good article Nicky. Seeing that the majority of fires in TMNP are directly caused by humans, and anecdotally it seems that arson, illegal dwellers, and religious groups cause 90+% of man-made fires, I believe these deserve special attention. This issue of the homeless has become so politically loaded that it seems unjustifiably risky to raise the issues, but yet this has a profound impact on the fire risk, fire damage and control expenditure which must run in the 10s, if not 100s of millions annually. Again anecdotally, volunteer groups and rangers have been met with aggression (and assault), or simply being ignored by these groups when trying to evict them from the mountain. One has to appreciate that there’s a range of circumstances and instances, but the common factor remain grossly negligent, dangerous behaviour (even if it is unintentional). We’ve seen fires doing damage of billions, and it is a matter of time before lives are lost. We cannot insist that the general public observe the rules, and yet exempt the homeless and religious groups who put themselves and everyone else at risk. It’s high time that SANP takes a harder line on this and collaborates with the City of Cape Town to ensure immediate arrest and appropriate consequences for those who make fires in the Park. Of the estimated 14000 homeless people and millions of worshippers in Cape Town, a fraction seem to think it’s their right to make fires on the mountain, yet they present a massive risk and cost. I fail to see how it is understanding or compassionate to allow this disastrous behavior.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted