The fynbos biome is fire driven which is why frequent fires can occur. The GVB Conservancy includes mountain fynbos, semi forested areas and lowland fynbos which is found south of the Langeberg mountain range. In the conservancy, we have had to deal with many fires which have shaped our perspective on fire, and we have learnt so much about the risks and how to manage them. Fires can start from powerlines, lighting, even falling rocks so one must always be prepared. This blog shares some of what we have learnt about fire and fire management.
Fire, a disturbance or a prerequisite
Fires are very important but can be an unwelcome interruption in people’s livelihoods, both socially and economical (Pereira et al., 2012). Fire can destroy vegetation, buildings, and crops or endanger human lives (Cowling and Richardson,1995). Depending on where and how they burn, fires can be either harmful or beneficial (Hardesty et al.,2005).
Why fires are important in the natural environment?
Fire is necessary in fynbos ecosystem (Manning, 2007) (Pyne,1990). It is a natural and normal process in fynbos and some of the lifecycles in this biome are shaped by fire. (Cowling and Richardson,1995). Fynbos is a fire adapted vegetation and if regular fires do not occur most fynbos types would get dominated by woody shrubs and trees (Manning, 2007). They say fire is the engine that drives the fynbos cycle, and periodic fires are not only an integral, but an essential aspect of fynbos ecosystem (Manning, 2007). Fynbos has more fires than any other type of heathland on the planet. This is due to the severe flammability of the dried, frequently intricated branches, bushes, and restoids, and it is not common to come across strands of fynbos vegetation that are older than 20 years (Manning, 2007).
Without fire in fynbos, there is a chance that the fynbos plants do not produce offspring, resulting in biodiversity loss. If fire is being excluded from fynbos for too long many of the landscapes would become densely infested with limited species of forest/thicket shrubs or trees (Cowling and Richardson,1995). Different vegetation types experience different fire regimes depending on the source of ignition (e.g. lightning), the fuel load (the amount and arrangement of flammable vegetation) and the climatic conditions. Most fynbos communities burn every 12 to 15 years. This frequency is determined by the rate at which the fynbos grows, or the way fuel loads accumulate after the previous fire. (Cowling and Richardson,1995).
Goliath Highburg (Oom Twakkie) mentioned that alien invasion is a larger fire threat than fynbos. This is because the wood of alien trees is hard and burns for much longer, while fynbos burns out quicker. In the long run, the removal of invasive plants will greatly reduce your risk of destructive fires. The veld ages across Grootvadersbosch differ and depend on the natural vegetation and land use. Veld that is older and has more woody material will have more fuel load and will therefore be more likely to burn and will burn for longer with more intensity.
Renosterveld is at elevated risk of extinction. With 4% of renosterveld remaining in the Overberg, management of these areas is so important and proper management is needed to control some of the threats that renosterveld is facing. (Curtis.,2013).
The following rules apply for ecological prescribed burns in renosterveld, described by the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust, (Curtis.,2013).
Controlled burning also known as Prescribed burn
Prescribed burning or controlled burning is a management tool used in terms of resource management objectives (DiTomaso et.,al 2006)( Fernandez and Botelho, 2003). It’s ignited by a person and confined to a specific area (Teie and Pool, 2009).The objective of a prescribed fire is to establish and maintain plant life conditions (Teie and Pool, 2009). A prescribed burn needs to be managed carefully (Teie and Pool, 2009).
Before one starts a burn, it is important that you have infrastructure in place such as firefighting equipment, water, firebreaks, and manpower plus up to date weather forecasts (Bothma and du Toit.,2016).
A fair amount of planning goes into the controlled burning of areas. This includes:
How to prepare for fire and avoid uncontrolled burns?
Firebreaks are frequently included in a management plan to prevent a fire hazard. A firebreak is usually a natural barrier used to put out flames and create a working control line (Teie, 2003).
A word with Goliath Highburg (Oom Twakkie) who is responsible for fire management in the conservancy, and he says the following: ‘‘Firebreaks are advantageous, I would advise when constructing a firebreak, make it ankle high, so that it doesn’t cause erosion'', which will have a bad environmental impact later and that’s one of the disadvantages of firebreaks. Other negative effects that can be caused by firebreaks include soil becoming more acidic, compared to grassland soil for example and other aspects such as lower nitrogen count in the soil (O’connor., et.al 2004).
Every landowner on whose land a wildfire may originate, burn, or spread must create and maintain a firebreak on his or her side of the boundary between his or her land and any adjoining land, according to Section 12 of the National Wild and Forest Fire Act. The purpose of the firebreak will determine the type of construction that should be used. The aim of the fire breaks could be to (Teie and Pool.,2009):
Planning to burn. A plan should be prepared for even the simplest burn. If it's a low-risk burn, a checklist may suffice, but if it's a higher-risk burn, you'll need to think carefully about the place and put your plan in writing. You can create a burning plan if you want to do a large, controlled burn (Teie and Pool.,2009).
Some of the questions that one must think about and answer prior to burning include:
1. How much manpower do you have?. The amount of labour depends on the size of your burn and the risk of runaway fires. Most importantly the bakkie sakkie will require a driver and an operator. In addition, several experienced persons (6-10) on the ground to light and extinguish the fires.
2. What equipment do you have for undertaking the burn? You will need a bakkie sakkie (water tank on the back of your vehicle), drip torches with petrol/diesel mix. Spray backpacks, beaters, rakes, have enough food, drink and first aid kits available for the fire team.
3. Is your team wearing the required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)? Head protection, such as a hard hat, and leather or other robust material boots are types of PPE. Eye protection (goggles) is necessary and a balaclava for the face. Leather gloves should be available. Fire-retardant and acid-resistant overalls and fire-retardant endurance pants are needed, along with headlamps and torches.
4) Where are the water refilling points? Consider the location of your dams and water tanks for both routine and emergency filling for the bakkie sakkie. Ensure that you have access to water stations so that you can ensure a safe rotation for the bakkies sakkie, ensuring that the fire line is never without backup from water tankers.
5) Do you have the necessary burn permits? A permit from your local fire protection association is required. A maps of the region that you want to burn is usually included. Have you gathered the information you'll need to make your burning plan? Have you prepared the necessary background to inform your burning plan?.
6) Are you looking for help from a working on fire, FPA, Cape nature, or the conservancy with your burn? If you are part of a protected area, or are a stewardship site, you may be able to get help with your controlled burn.
7) What is the burn's ignition point, and which wind direction will you need to light it? Before continuing with the rest of the burn, look at your veld and consider your ignition point, as well as where your danger zones are and how you'll burn them to be safe.
Why join the FPA.
A FPA (Fire Protection Association) is there to protect, Prevent, manage, and extinguish veld fires. A FPA develops a fire management strategy and plan for the area; establish rules and regulations, provides training, appoints a fire protection officer and can take action to suppress unwanted fires.
Benefits of being a member of the FPA are 1) in civil actions the landowner is not automatically assumed negligent if a fire leaves their property and 2) the landowner may be exempt from making firebreaks on all their property boundaries.
The fire protection officer has important duties. At the conservancy Goliath Highburg is the fire officer and the duties that he performs are to control firefighting activities, enforce rules and regulations of the FPA, inspect members land for compliance and to provide fire protection training.
All GVB conservancy members must also be a member of a local FPA .
We hope that this information will help you prepare for the fire season ahead. Lets hope that it is a fire free season!
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GVB Conservancy Staff