The Western Cape has experienced a number of devastating and traumatizing wild fires in recent years.  Is your home at Risk?  How to assess and reduce the risk of loss of property and life by wild fires was the focus of an informative discussion hosted by Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on 17 October 2019.

Key Points:

What we can’t change?  

1 The natural ignition of wildfires which is a crucial part of the health of Cape Fynbos Ecology.

2 Natural Fire Flow patterns. This is the natural direction that wild fires burn based on factors including the prevailing wind conditions, topography and fire resistant vegetation. Healthy indigenous forests are naturally resistant to fires and they typically form in the lee of fire flows. Under high fire risk conditions, firebreaks do not always stop a fire. They can slow the fire front and do provide access for firefighting.

3 Volatile vegetation. Fynbos is volatile and needs fire in 7 – 15 year cycles depending on the type of fynbos.  This is something we have to accept living in the Cape Bio-diversity hotspot.  However, the infestations of alien vegetation are also extremely volatile and an unacceptable fire risk. Removing invasive alien vegetation is the responsibility of all property owners.

4 Fire Spotting. Burning embers, branches, protea heads, pine cones, palm fronds etc are carried in the heated updraft and deposited kilometres away from the fire front. Here they can start a new fire.  This is called fire spotting!  Houses and buildings are vulnerable to fire spotting which starts apparently random fires up to 12km – but more typically within 1km from the fire front. While you can’t stop fire spotting, you can manage your property to reduce the risk of the spotting starting a fire. 

What we can change – we can make our properties fire resistant.

Know your fire station numbers and phone as soon as you see a wildfire. CT Fire Brigade 021 590 1900,  TMNP Emergency – 086 110 6417,  TMNP Newlands Fire Station  021 689 7438 /9 (o/h)

70% of the houses that burnt in the Knysna wildfire crisis of June 2017 had vegetation close to or on the buildings.

Look at the Excellent Checklist of property planning and actions to protect your property from wild fires compiled by the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association.

http://www.cpfpa.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/CPFPA-Wildfire-Defensible-Space-A4.pdf

Some of the recommendations about creating a defensible space around your home, especially those relating to not planting close to your home, not planting creepers on the walls or pergolas or tall trees and thickets of vegetation close to buildings, are likely to conflict with wishes for shade, screening and `urban wildlife sanctuaries’ on your property. You will need to make your own decisions about balancing these competing needs. The extent to which your property is a wild fire risk should inform your decisions.

Risk factors include:

– the distance of your property from the urban / wildfire edge. Do not disregard fire spotting.

– whether or not your property is in a prevailing fire flow path

– how much volatile vegetation you have on your property and the immediate surrounds. Fine leaved plants close to buildings and a large dead -plant fuel load make your property more vulnerable.

– when last was the vegetation on the urban /wildlife edge close to your property burnt?  This is relevant because it relates to the fire fuel load close to your property

Vegetation as risk reducer.

On the upside, there are indigenous succulents that retard the spread of fire such as succulent plectranthus, spekboom, carpobrotus / sour fig, bulbinella etc. These make good fire resistant ground covers and hedges. Some indigenous trees including milkwoods are also fire resistant. These trees need to be in healthy condition and clear of dead branches.

Authorities and wildfire NGO’s proactively engaged.

NCC Environmental Services, in collaboration with the CSIR and other fire specialists with funding from the Table Mnt. Fund, has designed a sophisticated fire prediction tool. Working for Water is investing as much as they can to clear invasive alien vegetation in the Cape Peninsula including in the TMNP. The challenge is huge. They have served a final notice to clear on the property owner of the Glencairn ridge which is a fire disaster just waiting to happen.

There are large stands of alien vegetation on Navy land in Simon’s Town and on private properties in the Cape Peninsula which need to be prioritised for clearing.  This brings to mind the legal liability of land owners whose properties harbour extensive stands of volatile alien vegetation!  Should land owners be liable for the damage to others as a result of a wildfire that starts or passes through a property that they are not actively clearing of alien vegetation?  Should this apply equally to residential property owners on the urban wildfire interface who do not manage the fuel load on their properties?  It is likely that the insurance industry will be looking at contributary negligence in future wildfire disasters.  Claims and compensation could well be based on how responsible land owners were in ensuring that their properties were reasonably fire proofed.

www.greenbook.co.za is an online resource tool to help city and settlement planners and politicians understand the threats and challenges of Climate Change including increased fire risks. It aims to facilitate the mainstreaming of climate change adaptation into local government planning. A valuable and interesting resource.

With thanks to Kirstenbosch, NCC, the CSIR and CPFPA and DEFF’s Working for Water clearing programme. Also to all the fire fighters who have saved our lives and homes as they face the fury of wild fires.

Kim Kruyshaar October 2019

Photos Courtesy of Dr Johan Kloppers