Cape readies for fire season


The Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs has said it has ramped up firefighting resources in preparation for the summer fire season.

At the wildfire season preparedness launch at the Vergelegen Wine Estate in Somerset West this past Friday, Anton Bredell, Minister of Local Government and Environmental Affairs in the Western Cape, noted that the Provincial government and its fire partners have demonstrated readiness to respond to fires in the shortest possible time.

The number of fires and area burnt has increased dramatically since the 2014/15 season and about 9000 wildfires were reported in the Western Cape between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, many of them wreaking havoc and straining resources.

The spokesperson for the Provincial Environmental Affairs ministry, James Brent-Styan, said that with hot, dry and windy conditions expected across the drought stricken province, fire fighters fear the 2017/2018 fire season will be one of the worst.

Those in attendance at the launch included representatives of Cape Nature, Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue, Working on Fire, SANParks, Kishugu Aviation and various volunteer firefighting groups.

Bredell remarked that some of the preparations this year includes having 24 aircraft available, including eight helicopters, four fixed wing water bombers and eight spotters provided by Working on Fire and associated Kishugu Aviation. Some 36 runways have been prepared for these aircraft in strategic areas so that they can be deployed rapidly to where veld and vegetation have caught alight.

To complement the aerial resources are 1 550 municipal fire fighters across the province, with the support of approximately 1 020 seasonal fire fighters. Working on Fire have been contracted with 31 teams and 830 firefighters throughout the Province, with an additional 500 on standby in other provinces. An additional two Specialised Interagency Wildland Firefighting crews have also been contracted to respond to any wildfire. These specially trained teams are rapidly deployed directly to the fire-line, enabling an initial attack on major wildfires.

The aforementioned personnel excludes the various fire protection agency’s staff at a significant number of bases across the Province, together with the fire protection associations and land owners.
“Another additional resource, and we can’t leave them out,” Bredell said, “is the volunteers and the Volunteers Wildfire Services who give up their time to work with us.”
“Thank you very much,” Bredell told the volunteer representatives, “without you we won’t manage.”

Although not mentioned, the Province can also call in the assistance of the South African Air Force helicopters and personnel and equipment of the South African Navy.

Private land owners have an important role to play in the combating of wildfires by removing alien vegetation from their properties. Don Tooth, Managing Director of Vergelegen Wine Estate which hosted the event, told defenceWeb that in 2003 they commenced with a programme of clearing 2 200 hectares of alien vegetation and have reached a 95% completion rate to date.

The benefit of this program is vividly told by Tooth: “In 1997, we fought one of our fires for 21 days as we had a lot of standing alien vegetation in place. It kept reigniting, but the majority of it is now cleared. The fire that went through here at the beginning of 2016 lasted only three and a half days. That is the difference between having alien vegetation and natural vegetation.”

With a strategy based on getting to the fire as soon as possible, the Province hopes to minimise damage and the loss of life.
“Members of the public are urged to get hold of the emergency services by calling 112 (even from a cell phone) so that the professional firefighters can respond.

Said Bredell: “We’ve got the manpower, we’ve got the people and the resources to help. Please don’t be quiet, especially if your own fire is getting out of hand. The quicker you can get the experts, the less damage there will be at the end of the day.
“We’re very honoured that we put your lives at risk to safe others and to see to it that our tourists enjoy our environment … and they can only do that if they’re going to feel safe,” he said, “It is through this unit that they can feel safe.”