Thousands of hectares destroyed by Free State wildfires
Raging wildfires that have destroyed nearly 100 000ha in the western Free State since Sunday, 18 October 2020, were being fanned by strong winds. It seems that the area is highly politically charged at the moment with the Senekal case being cited as the reason. One Hertzogville farmer lost livestock valued at R900 000 and the damage to the infrastructure on his farm amounted to R3 million. Various reports of livestock succumbing to the blaze had also been received, with farmers still searching for animals that fled the blaze. In one case, a farmer found some of his cattle on a farm that was about “seven farms away” from his property. Johann “Savage” Breytenbach, incident commander for the Hertzogville Fire Complex reported, “Hertzogville Fire: Various fires ignited in the Hertzogville area on Sunday, 18 October 2020 and spread very rapidly. Local fire protection association structures attempted to contain the fire without success. The fire spread over a large area affecting Dealesville and Bultfontein. The fire was contained on 19 October 2020 at approximately 21h00. The Boshoff/Northern Cape Fire: At approximately 21h00 a fire that originated south of Windsorton in the Northern Cape Province crossed the border just north of Boshof in driven by strong westerly winds. The fire was attacked by local fire protection association members supported by Working on Fire (WoF) personnel. The fire spread fast but was contained at around 01h00am on 20 October 2020. However, all fires in the Hertzogville area re-ignited at various points along the two fire perimeters from 10h00 that morning. The fire has caused serious damages to grazing and some planted crops while large scale animal and game losses has been reported. Various structures have been destroyed and a number of implements and sheds have also been destroyed. The economic impact of the fire will be extensive and should the fire not be contained the damages will increase exponentially.” An incident command post with an incident command team was established effectively manage the incident.
The IMT established the following objectives:
1. Safety of resources and public
2. Structure and asset protection
3. Stabilising of incident
a. Extensive mop-up operation
b. Possible support to contain Northern Cape fires
4. Impact assessment of Herzogville Complex fires
Local landowners have been attempting suppression from Sunday afternoon but has not been successful to maintain successes. Lejweleputswa District DM centre provided two WoF teams from Mangaung to assist local resources. The local farmers and FPA members are at the point of exhaustion and not able to maintain momentum with suppression operations. WoF teams are being relieved by a joint team from Brandfort and Winburg and will be able to continue operations.
The 21 October 2020 incident report issued by the Free State Umbrella Fire Protection Association (FPA) stated that all visible flames have been supressed overnight but smouldering and hotspots along the fire perimeter had not been attended to and coordinated mop-up must be prioritised. The complex has two distinct fires the Hertzogville Fire and Boshoff/Northern Cape Fire while active burning is continuing in the Northern Cape Province in Warrenton and Windsorton area 20 to 30km west of the area of operations. The fires in the Northern Cape are a substantial threat to the local area as they have not been contained and are actively burning over large areas.
The 18h00 21 October 2020 report stated that the Hertzogville Fire remained contained but mop-up of remaining hotspots must be completed. Boshoff/Northern Cape Fire experienced some re-ignitions at hot spots but re-ignitions were quickly contained. Mop-up operations was initiated and be continued in the morning. Most of the Northern Cape Fires fires had been contained by mid-morning but a high intensity fire developed north of Jan Kemp Dorp in the afternoon. Containment was achieved but no mop-up operation was implemented. The weather conditions experienced through the day afforded an opportunity to assess the situation and prepare for the expected severe fire weather expected in the area from 22 October. The complete lack of organisational capacity with local structures makes obtainment of accurate fire information almost impossible. The fires have not been mapped effectively and no clear picture of the true extent of the incident could be constructed. This lack of information greatly hampered the effective implementation of the operational plan.
WoF teams from North West and Free Sate is on site and two 802 tractor aircraft will be available to provide aerial assistance from 06h00. Additional WoF resources have been placed on standby to assist as the situation develops.
The evenings report on 21 October 2020 stated 21 October 2020 that fires in the Hertzogville complex remains contained but mop-up of remaining hotspots must be completed. Boshoff/Northern Cape Fire experienced some re-ignitions at hot spots but re-ignitions were quickly contained. Mop-up operations was initiated and be continued in the morning. Most Northern Cape fires had been contained by mid-morning but a high intensity fire developed west of Hartswater (NC) in the afternoon. The fire is burning actively and efforts by local landowners to contain it have not been successful.
However, Gys Olivier, chairperson of the Hertzogville District Farmers’ Union, said the affected farmers were heartened by all the support that had poured in. “I have to commend the Working on Fire teams for doing their utmost to contain the inferno. The assistance we received from all sides gave us the courage and resolve to stay positive. The affected districts functioned in a unified manner, forging ahead to fight the inferno. It goes without saying that we are hurt and shocked to the core, but we are not without hope,” he said.
Free State Agriculture (FSA) made R100 000 available from its disaster fund for the transportation of animal feed to the affected areas. Meanwhile, Dr Jack Armour, FSA’s operations manager, called for extreme vigilance to prevent further wildfires due to the strong wind and high level of combustible matter on the veld, especially in the western parts of the province.
The fires reportedly started on Sunday when service delivery protesters burned tyres on the R708 road between Hertzogville and Christiana. Flames from the burning tyres was thought to have spread to the surrounding veld, from where they fanned out to Hertzogville, Boshof, Bultfontein and Hoopstad, according Olivier.
Sources: Johann “Savage” Breytenbach, incident commander, Hertzogville Fire Complex, Free State Umbrella Fire Protection Association and Farmer’s Weekly