Cape Winelands reports back on 2018/2019 Veld Fire Season
In the hot, dry regions like the Cape Winelands District where the sun parches the vegetation, veld fires can take hold with terrifying speed. Fuelled by strong winds, they race across vast distances, destroying vast areas of natural habitat, trees, crops and buildings. Although veld fires can bring disasters to populated areas, not all their consequences are bad. They can clear away deadwood, leave fertile ash in the soil and help to germinate the seeds of some trees and fynbos.
In summer, searing temperatures and drought provide the ideal conditions for outbreaks of veld fires in the Cape Winelands. Plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees are also found here, their oily bark and leaves are set alight very easily and burn fiercely. Strong winds can blow flaming scraps of bark over long distances, starting dozens of new fires.
Most veld fires are started deliberately by people or caused by carelessness, such as cooking fires that have not been extinguished. Some fires are caused by lightning, when lightning strikes the ground, it can heat soil to temperatures of up to 1 800°C and instantly set alight vegetation.
Veld or mountain fires can spread at speeds of more than 20km/h, faster than a person can run. Most fires can be extinguished quickly but some can burn for weeks on end raging across the landscape. The Cape Winelands experienced many devastating fires over the years.
With a veld or mountain fire, as with a fire in a building, time was the critical factor. What could be handled immediately by a few fire fighters might in only a few minutes require 120 fire fighters to dig in, establish a fire line and begin their counter-assault, with perhaps even helicopters equipped with special heli-buckets to drop or spray fire retardants and water in an attempt to minimise the fires spreading, slow down and cool the flames.
A mountain fire out of control could spread with unbelievable rapidity, its wind-driven and fuel-fed power multiplying in quantum jumps until it could seem and could even be, that the entire mountain slope was aflame. A mountain fire is the enemy and sensible people will treat it with respect.
There is always the danger that a fire can crown if a plantation or an area of big trees are burning. A fire that “crowned” was one that rose into the tops of the huge trees and spread from treetop to treetop, high above the reach and control of fire fighters on the ground, its behaviour at the mercy of totally unpredictable winds at treetop height. A “crowned fire” could fling burning ambers in all directions, jumping laboriously cleared fire breaks with ease. At worst, it could, by expanding the fire’s size and fury, turn into the ultimate, a “fire storm” which through the enormous energy of its rising flames and super-heated air could suck in fresh oxygen at ground level, thus feeding itself and turning the entire area into a holocaust which would end only when all fuel was exhausted. The results of such a fire were awesome and sickening, leaving, when it eventually burned itself out, only charred and worthless skeletons of trees large and small, all ground cover gone and the land naked and helpless, exposed to erosion from rain flooding from which it might never recover.
Fighting mountain and major fires are an organised technical business, with fire vehicles and equipment of all kinds, both surface and airborne and electronic marvels to facilitate communication.
A Fire Team consist of a complete organisation of supervisory personnel, designated specialists, ranks, duties and responsibilities as specific as those of officers of a military force and a major fire is conducted like a major military operation and the Incident Commander perform his role like the commanding General.
The Fire Team supervisory personnel would determine the numbers and kinds required of actual fire-fighting crews and equipment, have appropriate numbers of ground fire-fighting crews, determine strategy and command the entire fire suppression operation. The overall commander to manage the Incident Command Post is called the Incident Commander. At the foundation of the entire operation is the fire-fighting crews, the troops.
But when you got right down to it, fires were still fought and conquered, by fire fighters on the ground, working with hand tools, bush beaters, muscle and sweat. Fire lines were established by grunting, cursing, aching muscles, breathing smoke and hearing the frightful roaring of flames and the crackling of trees and other vegetation as they perished.
Danger of vegetation fires
Fire fighters wear protective clothing in order to be able to work as closely as they do to the flames but at times even this is not enough to protect them from the full impact of the heat.
Veld fires can move incredibly quickly and this is especially true when driven by winds or moving upslope.
The area that a wildfire has burned through is still not safe to enter even after the flames have gone. There are other hazards that still exits such as white ash pits; these are filled with super-heated ash from burned out root systems. They are hard to spot so can easily be stepped on by someone thinking they are on solid ground. The result of falling into one of these pits would be severe burns and injuries.
Other hazards in the burned area after a veld fire has moved through are falling trees and branches from trees that have become unstable owing to the surrounding vegetation or root systems being burned away.
Rock falls are also common in the mountains after a fire, again this is due to the lack of vegetation and possibly also by the action of fire fighting resources dropping water or working on slopes.
There are few sights on earth as terrifying as a wild veld fire on the loose when faced close-up from ground level, which is the view fire fighters customarily have.
The heavy smoke fumes of veld fires can sometimes be lethal. Carbon monoxide concentration in veld fires, especially in valleys, could rise to more than 800ppm (parts per million), more than enough to cause death from no more than brief exposure, or lasting deleterious effects.
The support that the Fire Services receive from landowners, farm watch organisations and other volunteers are fantastic and tremendously valued, however, we urge that people recognise the very real danger they can face when placing themselves close to a veld fire.
Veld fire season
The fire season has not been the most challenging fire season ever endured but it was still a busy and rough season. The Fire Services responded and attended to more than 1300 fires reported from the 1st October 2018 to the 30th April 2019.
Although the numbers are not extraordinary on their own, the biggest problem has been the number of simultaneous fires occurring which resulted in the resources available being stretched beyond the limits. Apart from the sheer number of fires, the extreme weather conditions over prolonged periods of time, high temperatures and strong winds also contributed to making suppression operations very difficult. The intensity of the fires was also greatly influenced by the prolonged drought, which when combined with the high temperatures and winds, resulted in areas which rarely burn becoming tinder dry.
Fire fighting personnel and equipment from various agencies have been tested and stretched to the limit on numerous occasions and full Incident Command teams were deployed to manage a number of the operations. A unified command post was established at all the major fires to ensure the safety of the fire crews, to manage and coordinate the incident action plans.
The high number of fires and especially the major and devastating fires could only be attended to in many instances with the assistance of the Local Municipalities, Cape Nature, members of Fire Protection Association, contracted ground veld fire crews and aerial fire fighting support.
The most devastating and destructive fires were in the vicinity of the Koue Bokkeveld, Witzenberg, Tulbagh, Stormsvlei, Paarl mountain, Remhoogte/Simonsberg and Franschhoek. The majority of the other larger fires were brought under control and extinguished within a period of two days.
The extent of the areas of vegetation burned amounts to more than 50 000 hectares. Aerial resources were called out on 35 occasions. The total cost to Cape Winelands for the use of Aerial support and ground veld fire crews amounts to approximately R12 million. PGWC also assisted Cape Winelands by providing aerial support as initial attack on a number of occasions and also provided a specialised ground fire fighting team.
The Incident Command team and fire crews did extremely well to manage the incidents, contain the devastating blazes and avoid catastrophic fires. No serious damage to property was reported and other damages include vineyards, orchards, water pipes, water tanks, fences, etc.
The fire fighters and pilots displayed tremendous dedication, commitment and skills during the fires that ravaged the Cape Winelands over the past season. Were it not for their exceptional work, Cape Winelands would have experienced far greater damage and losses of property and risks to lives.
The Fire Service prides itself on efficient and effective service delivery to the entire community and to comply with our primary goal to eliminate loss of life and reduce property loss.
Our inherent biodiversity, changing weather conditions due to the climate change and negligent human behaviour increases the challenges when dealing with fires.
The extremely high temperatures that the fire fighting personnel are exposed to, makes them prone to dehydration which could lead to heat related illnesses.
In addition, the excess hours- normal and overtime that the personnel have to work, further exposes them to physical and mental exhaustion that could make them prone to injuries whilst in the line of duty.
Outstanding key issues
Some of the outstanding key issues from the season are the size and duration of some of the incidents and the associated high costs of suppression.
A lot of the incidents and their expansion into complex and costly suppression operations were as a direct result of a few common denominators. These are as follows:
• Excessively large fuel loads as a result of poorly managed alien clearing operations and poor vegetation management by landowners.
• Inadequate clearance around structures has been repeatedly identified as a major factor in the destruction of homes and other buildings.
• Repetitive deliberate ignitions by members of certain communities.
• Negligence by members of the public and landowners due to open fires during adverse weather conditions. (Hot, dry and windy).
• Extended periods of extreme fire weather i.e. hot, dry and high velocity winds. There were at least three extended heat wave periods during the season.
Another concern is the general lack of adherence to National Legislation by landowners and government institutions, with respect to the National Veld and Forest Fire Act (No 101 of 1998).
The mountain fire that came to be known as Mooiwater – the name the incident commander gave it only because every large fire must have a name, began at mid-afternoon on Monday, 18 February 2019, when a vegetation fire was accidentally caused by an unknown person.
The fire started in the Mooiwater area in vicinity of the Theewaterskloof dam and progressed into our area on the 19th. Notwithstanding the fact that the fire started and was still burning in the area of Overberg District, the responding Senior Officer immediately activated all available fire fighting vehicles, aerial resources as well as contracted ground crews to assist.
Additional resources were also activated (including all available resources from Stellenbosch Municipality) to assist with the suppression operation. A unified Incident Command was established to develop a common set of incident objectives, strategies and to manage the entire operation.
As evening came on that “Mooiwater” blue Monday, the south-easterly wind gathered speed, first merely a faint stirring, then a noticeable current, at last becoming a strong wind fanning the fire to spread rapidly upslope.
When Cape Winelands received the call and dispatched three helicopters with heli-buckets as initial attack, the fire was already out of hand. There was already a feeling in our mind about this fire, a sense of urgency and concern.
The fire rapidly spread from the origin, upslope, towards the mountain and Franschhoek Pass due to the extreme weather conditions as well as the dense alien vegetation and Fynbos that predominates on all the land above Theewaterskloof dam.
Despite the fire fighters best efforts to contain the fire, a sudden wind shift caused the fire to spread over the Franschhoek Pass and very rapidly spread fanned by strong south-easterly winds
The situation was critical during the night of the 21st and early morning hours of the 22nd of February and resources were deployed to mainly protect life and property resulting in vehicles leap frogging from farm to farm as the fire front progressed. Accessibility to a number of properties was problematic due to overgrown vegetation (low hanging branches etc.).
Due to the extent of the fire, flanks were contained on different dates, the Franschhoek Bohoek/Assegaaiboskloof area was contained during the evening of 22nd of February, the High Noon was declared contained in the late afternoon of the 24th of February.
Fire fighting efforts continued and was ongoing until Monday 25 February 2019. The remaining ground crews were trooped out of High Noon in anticipation of a potential cold front moving in and the Incident was handed back to normal operations by the IC team and finally declared safe and extinguished on the morning of the 26th of February after a good rain have drenched the area.
A number of other resources from numerous other agencies assisted with fire suppression and protection. At various stages there were up to 175 fire fighters assisted by up to 23 fire fighting vehicles and three helicopters actively involved with suppression operations.
The total cost to Cape Winelands for the use of Aerial support and ground veld fire fighting contract crews amounts to more than R 3 000 000.
There was no loss to life or serious injuries, no damage to structural property but damage to water tanks and irrigation pipes was reported and approximately 3 hectares of vineyards scorched by the fire. A total of 7246 hectares of vegetation burnt.
A possible disaster to the community of Franschhoek was prevented by the rapid response and effective fire suppression operations by all agencies involved. The Incident Command team and fire crews did extremely well to manage the incident contain the devastating blaze.
A number of factors were identified and need to be seriously addressed in order to ensure better chances of success in controlling future fires in the area and reducing the likelihood of damages to properties and livelihoods. Below are a number of issues to be considered and more importantly implemented as soon as possible.
• Construction and maintenance of strategic and tactical fire breaks by landowners.
• Removal and eradication of alien vegetation infestations by landowners.
• Improve accessibility to properties and structures for fire vehicles and crews.
• Landowners to create defendable space around their assets such as water tanks, pipes, buildings, vineyards, orchards etc.
• Traffic and public access to sites to be strictly controlled.
Franschhoek Community Assistance
While the fire fighters were hard at work with their difficult task, members of the Franschhoek community coordinated a project to provide food and refreshments to the fire fighters. The community diligently got involved and generously offered their help. Even individual families contributed in their personal capacity showing their support and appreciation towards the fire fighters doing their challenging jobs under difficult and life threatening circumstances. In this way commendable citizenship and partnership in protecting our resources were demonstrated.
The management of the Fire Services and all other Fire Fighting Agencies extend their sincere appreciation and gratitude for the selfless assistance offered by the community of Franschhoek, all private companies and community organisations that contributed in providing food and refreshments to the fire fighters. This action of citizen’s responsiveness and willingness to help and support is acknowledged with the deepest appreciation and gratitude. Special word of thanks is also extended to the Municipality of Stellenbosch for offering their facilities to the Incident Command team, the Traffic services and the South Africa Police Service for their assistance and support.
Memorandum of agreement with the Department of Local Government
The Cape Winelands District Municipality and the Department of Local Government entered into an agreement whereby the Department will assist CWDM managing veld fires to deploy aerial fixed wing aircraft and a helicopter to respond to fires in their initial stages and commence an early fire attack with the objective of preventing extended attack operations and major fire spread.
Cape Winelands District Veld Fire Workgroup
The Fire Services of the Cape Winelands District Municipality, Cape Nature and Winelands Fire Protection Association entered into a memorandum of agreement with the objective that the parties agree to co-operate in the optimisation of their organisations and resources for systematically and expeditiously managing veld fires within the Cape Winelands District Municipal area.
The Workgroup met numerous times prior to and during the veld fire season to exchange information regarding resources available for veld fire suppression, areas of high fire risk, veld fire action plans and incident command structures to plan coordination at all major fires
The operational procedure and Incident Command System during major fires were discussed and clarified with the aim that all role players will commit themselves to cooperative fire fighting strategies for the summer season. Continual engagement with all role-players was undertaken during the Veld Fire Season to ensure good coordination and relations.
It must again be noted that this partnership is working well and resulted in fires being secured in their initial stages or the spread and impact of the fires drastically reduced.
Cape Winelands District Municipality have Mutual Aid agreements with all the Local Municipalities in the District. They assisted our Fire Services at major fires and when we experienced a high number of fires and our resources were stretched to the limit.
Fire Protection Association
The Winelands Fire Protection Association is functioning very well and this organisation is maturing as envisaged by the National Veld and Forest Fire Act. It is also the intention to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and standardised approach to the management of fire risk within the district, such as the specifications and siting of firebreaks, equipment and training of members etc. The FPA operate from the Cape Winelands offices in Bird Street, Stellenbosch, which allows for better cooperation and interaction between the FPA and the Fire Services.
Other role players
◦ Working on Fire- ground teams and Aerial resources
◦ CWDM contract ground veld fire fighting teams
◦ Volunteer Wildfire Services (Jonkershoek base)
◦ Henley Air- Helicopter
◦ MTO Forestry
Note of appreciation
We must congratulate and extend our sincere appreciation to all the role players such as the Department of Local Government, the Local Municipalities, Cape Nature, the Wildfire Volunteers, contract ground fire fighting teams, Henley Air(Helicopters), members of the Winelands Fire Protection Association and especially the Incident Command team and fire crews for their commitment to effective fire suppression operations.
Summary of statistics
◦ Attended to more than 1 300 fires
◦ Area of vegetation burned amounts to more than 50 000hectares
◦ Aerial resources were called out on 35 occasions.
◦ The total cost to Cape Winelands for only the Aerial resources and ground fire fighting teams amount to approximately R12 million
◦ Serious damages to vineyards, orchards and timber plantations with financial losses running into the hundreds of millions of rand
◦ More than 175 fire fighters from all the agencies involved attended the major fires
◦ No serious damage to property was reported
◦ Other damages were limited to water pipes, water tanks, hay bales and fences etc.
Source: Cape Winelands District Municipality Fire Services