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Wildfire meets its match

Written by  Staff
| in Landbou
| August 5, 2015

A quiet revolution in wildfire management is taking place in vast areas of the Western Cape - from the West Coast and Namaqualand to the Overberg - as  farmers work together with Fire Protection Associations to tackle the scourge of wildfire.

Their unprecedented success could have an impact on wildfire fighting nationally, and even globally. Evelyn John Holtzhausen reports from Porterville, home of the Greater Cederberg Fire Protection Association.

Charl du Plessis, the manager of the Greater Cederberg Fire Protection Association (GCFPA), is a big man neither prone to boasting nor showing too much emotion to strangers; he takes his job very seriously indeed.

But even over the telephone, one can imagine Charl’s smile of accomplishment as he speaks of how more and more farmers, and clusters of farmers organised into fire management units, are turning to him and his colleagues in the GCFPA for support, advice and guidance in their quest to reduce the threat to life and destruction of crops posed by unwanted wildfire.

“Only last week, we burned over 100 hectares assisting farmers with Integrated Fire Management and reducing risks”, he said.

“In the Overberg they have merged the area’s numerous Fire Protection Associations to form a single FPA.”

The GCFPA is not a fire fighting organisation,” Charl emphasises. “Fire suppression is conducted according to the Fire Brigade Services Act and is the responsibility of District Municipalities.

“But we help landowners to prevent, manage and minimise the impact of wildfires by implementing  Integrated Fire Management (IFM) principles. We aim to protect lives, livelihoods, property and the environment.”

While Charl and his team celebrate their victories in the Greater Cederberg area, colleagues, not too far away in the Overberg region, have emerged from a hectic fire season. Rising as a more cohesive force for the protection of lives and the high-value agricultural, forestry and natural assets of the richly endowed Overberg region of the Western Cape.

Sharing

Not only do they share common goals,  but the GCFPA and the Greater Overberg  Fire Protection Assocations (FPAs) also share the support of a remarkable project that aims to leave a legacy which will impact on the way wildfire is managed for generations to come.

Funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF)’s Special Climate Change Fund, the FynbosFire Project is being implemented on behalf of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) by a division of the Kishugu Group, which also implements government’s Working on Fire programme.

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The GEF is a 23-year-old partnership for international cooperation in which 183 countries work together with international institutions, civil society organisations and the private sector, to address global environmental issues.  Co-funders include the United Nations Development Programme, DEA, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and local FPAs.

The FynbosFire Project aims to embed the Integrated Fire Management  system, which widens the traditional focus on fire suppression to fire awareness, prevention and detection, risk mapping, hazard identification,
prescribed burning, resource sharing and co-ordination of fire prevention and fire fighting organisations.

The Greater Cederberg FPA, founded in 2005, has been a beneficiary of the project from the get go, while the Greater Overberg FPA (GO FPA) was initiated as a direct result of the project.

In the Overberg they have merged the area’s numerous Fire Protection Associations (FPAs) to form a single, cost-effective Greater Overberg FPA with close to 450 members.

The GCFPA is operating over a vast area, which incorporates the West Coast and Nama-
qua District Municipalities - covering towns such as Porterville, Vanrhynsdorp, Calvinia, Clanwilliam, Citrusdal, Piketberg, Malmesbury, and others.

Both FPAs have undertaken comprehensive mapping of the area to provide detailed fire-related information about members. It has fostered effective communication between the associations and their members, fire fighting services and communities. They have also trained local people in fire prevention skills.

The FPAs deploy the state-of-the-art Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS) that was developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with funding from the FynbosFire Project.
The system provides users with fire prediction, detection, monitoring, alerting, planning and reporting capabilities by integrating information from earth observation satellites, weather forecast models and information, weather stations and human observations.

“AFIS detects fires and assists with rapid response,” says Charl. “As soon as a fire is detected, the system provides information on the history of fires in that location, a map detailing infrastructure such as roads and property, and information on the weather, fire density and the size of the flammable area.

“The biome is expected to become more fire-prone due to climate change-induced hotter and drier weather.”

“This enables us to send out alerts and to provide information to FPA members and Incident Commanders. We have also trained municipal firefighting services in the optimal use of AFIS, and we are able to supply them with information they do not have immediately available.”
According to Hendaretha Kellerman, Communication Manager of Kishugu’s Non-Profit Company, who implements the FynbosFire Project, the project focuses on the Western and Eastern provinces of the Cape Fynbos Biome, the world’s smallest but richest floral kingdom. The biome is expected to become more fire-prone due to climate change-induced hotter and drier weather.

FynbosFire aims to enable FPAs and their members, partners and communities close to wildland areas to more effectively manage risks to the environment, property, agriculture and water catchments.

Game Changer

“The feedback from our members and the fire services is that the support we have received from the FynbosFire Project has been a game changer,” says GO FPA manager Louise Wessels. “It has enabled us to lay a solid foundation to extend Integrated Fire Management throughout the district.”

Most of the agricultural and forestry land, as well as many of the residential estates are situated in what is known as the Wildland-
Urban Interface, where they abut on or encroach into natural and alien vegetation, exposing them to wildfires in mountainous areas that are difficult to access, making it imperative to reduce and manage risks.

Major objectives of the FynbosFire Project have been achieved in the Overberg as well as in the GCFPA domains.

Where originally there had been reluctance among some of the original FPAs in the Overberg to give up their independence, it has been overcome, while others enthusiastically agreed to merge into one district wide FPA in a process supported by the project. The GCFPA has always only been one single entity, but has also expanded to include Namakwa District Municipality.

According to Charl, FPA experts help landowners to compile fire management plans to minimise the fire risk on their property and to ensure that they comply with the National Veld and Forest Fire Act [Act 101 of 1998] (NVFFA).

“In a court case, an FPA member is not presumed negligent should a fire start on his property and spread to cause damage elsewhere,”  he says. “The plaintiff has to proof negligence at his cost. If you are not a member, you are considered negligent and have to prove your own innocence.”

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Experts

FPA experts also assist members to apply for exemption to move firebreaks away from property boundaries and they organise and co-ordinate members during fire suppression operations.

Trained and equipped teams are available at a minimum cost to assist in fire prevention activities such as preparing firebreaks, conducting controlled burns and fuel reduction operations such as alien invasive plant species clearing. They also assist with fire suppression when requested.

“We communicate with our members regularly to improve fire awareness and to help prevent accidental wildfires, and we offer a variety of subsidised training and capacity-building courses to members and their staff”, says Charl.

Institutions like RSA Agri, Agri Western Cape and insurance companies support, and in some cases require, active participation in an FPA.

Nowhere is this support more evident than in the Overberg. Starting from scratch, the Greater Overberg FPA was able to build an accurate membership database by obliging applicants for membership to provide a wide range of fire-related information about their properties.

This enabled comprehensive digital mapping of the area, which was broadened by information available through the web-based AFIS system.
The GEF FynbosFire Project enhanced the FPAs’ ability to communicate with members, partners and communities by supporting the development of websites (www.cederbergfpa.co.za and www.overbergfpa.co.za) and communication through print media, electronic newsletters, Facebook and Twitter.

“We communicate with our members regularly to improve fire awareness...”

“All this support has enabled the FPAs to become an integral part of the community and to establish ourselves as a trustworthy and valuable partner,” says Louise.

It also helped the FPAs to prepare their members for the Western Cape fire season between November  and April. “Each member received a concise document providing a step-by-step guide to their responsibilities as landowners under the NVFFA, a checklist to assess their fire-readiness, and contact information in the event of fire,” says Louise. As the new fire season approached, landowners were ready.

Like many other parts of the Fynbos Biome, the GCFPA and GO FPA experienced a number of extensive wildfires.

“Most people seem to agree that the quality of additional information we have been able to gather and its availability and accessibility has greatly benefited the Overberg,” says Louise. “We have managed to lay foundations for effective and efficient communication between the FPA and its members and between them, fire fighting services and the community at large.”

With the FynbosFire Project having run its three-year course by the end of this year, the FPAs will be dependent only on membership fees and are now working to secure their long-term sustainability.

“We are looking to expand membership and broaden our revenue base, and to define which services we will be able to deliver effectively within our budget,” says Charl.