Wednesday, December 19, 2018
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Western Cape ready for wildfire season

An Air Tractor firefighting aircraft.As is customary every November, the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs finalised its firefighting resources in preparation for the worst summer wildfire season yet.

Anton Bredell, Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning in the Western Cape, said that “every year the fire season seems to be getting worse. Conditions across the province are hazardous following the devastating three-year drought that has seen lots of brush and veld die. If the veld catches alight and the wind takes the flames, the results can be devastating.”

Bredell was addressing delegates at the opening day of the two-day Wildfire Ready Convention hosted by the Lourensford Wine Estate near Cape Town this past Wednesday. Focussing on the future of targeting wildfires in Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), both local and international fire specialists will discuss the disastrous wildfires that have taken place with relevance to the WUI.

Although the fire season officially commences on 1 December, it appears that the Garden Route didn’t get the memo, with a fire in the Outenique/De Vlugt area surrounding George destroying almost 100 000 hectares in the first weeks of November. This was four times the size of the 2017 Knysna/Bitou fires. Even worse than the property destroyed, was the loss of nine lives, including that of a Working on Fire helicopter pilot who crashed during firefighting operations near Riversdale.

“We’ve had a very bad start to the fire season,” Bredell said earlier in November, noting that the Province had already experienced seven big fires, with 2 500 informal houses being destroyed within the City of Cape Town.

This season, as with the previous, the Provincial Disaster Management Centre will coordinate 24 aircraft, including eight water-bombing helicopters, four water-bombing fixed wing aircraft and eight spotter fixed-wing aircraft provided by Working on Fire and associated Kishugu Aviation. Over 36 airstrips have been prepared across this province for use by the fixed-wing aircraft in cases of need.

These aerial resources will be complimented by 1 550 municipal firefighters across this province, bolstered by approximately 1 020 seasonal firefighters. There are also 27 Working on Fire teams with about 830 firefighters in the Western Cape and an additional 500 firefighters in other provinces on standby which can be called upon.

In addition, two Type One inter-agency wildfire crews have been contracted to respond to wildfires across the Western Cape. These specially trained wildfire teams are rapidly deployed directly onto the fire line, enabling rapid initial attacks on large wildfires with the primary objective of preventing and reducing the major spread of the fire.

“Critical partners include Working on Fire, the City of Cape Town’s Fire Services and various district municipal fire services, SANParks, CapeNature, the volunteer fire fighters and various fire protection associations,” Bredell said.

Although not mentioned, nor in attendance at the Convention, the Province can also call on the limited assistance of South African Air Force helicopters and personnel and equipment of the South African Navy.

Recent experiences worldwide have seen wildfires migrating into populated areas with greater frequency and severity, such as in California and Portugal, requiring new and different approaches to taming the fires.

Members of the public are urged to get hold of the emergency services by calling 112 (even from a cell phone) so that professional firefighters can respond to a fire.

“Please don’t be quiet, especially if your own fire is getting out of hand,” Bredell urged, “the quicker you can get the experts, the less damage there will be at the end of the day.”

In closing, Bredell honoured the disaster management officials for their passion and never-ending sacrifices they and their families make for the well-being of others.

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