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Post: How do we prepare for the next mega-fire? Are we ready?

How do we prepare for the next mega-fire? Are we ready?
Trevor Abrahams, Pam Booth, Ian Pienaar and Paul Gerber were speakers at the event
 By Joy Crane
 
Five years have passed since the mega-fire in and around the Knysna area of
the Southern Cape, but the burn scars run deep in the topography and the region’s psyche.

In November, Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU’s) Forestry Department hosted the 13th Fire Management Symposium at the George Campus. The delegates considered the three elements of managing the wildfire behaviour triangle (oxygen, fuel and heatsource) within the highly complex contexts of climate change, fire science, the fynbos ecosystem, forestry, alien vegetation and changing land use. The problem is not wildfire but people putting themselves in the paths of fire. A strong message from the symposium for people living and working in the fire-prone and fire-dependent wildland-urban interface (WUI) is they need to take responsibility and adapt to the risks.  Communities need to become fire resilient. Tiaan Pool, head of the Forestry Department, welcomed everyone and introduced NMU’s campus principal, Dr Kaluke Mawila, who officially opened the three-day event.

Tiaan Pool informing the delegates about the field trips on the second day of the symposium
Pam Booth and Tiaan Pool considering fuel load management tactics

DISCONNECTED WUI
Prof Pete Fule of Northern Arizona University’s (NAU’s) forestry school delivered the keynote address. He presented a global view of the increasing phenomenon of mega- fires. Fule said the disconnect between natural and social sciences and disasters is aggravated by a lack of shared understanding of biodiversity and the problem of excluding fire.

Greg Forsyth, formerly from the CSIR, presented an update on the current and future veldfire risk in the world and SA. He pointed out that all vegetation is fire fuel. “The WUI is an intermix of people in formal and informal structures. Architects and planners must realise that altering an ecosystem changes the fire resistance,” he said.

Forsyth said risk assessment is needed to achieve a balance on the WUI. In fire-prone areas, it is impossible to expect authorities to help individuals. Property owners and insurance companies know the risk and need to understand that resources are stretched during emergencies.”

THE MEDIA
Lee Raath-Brownie of Fire & Rescue International discussed the role and impact of media on fire management. Online and social media are incredibly quick at disseminating information and reaching large audiences.

Incident managers and public information officers need to take control from the start of an event to manage the messages. If correctly used, media and communication platforms can help keep people away from the incident area, reassure the public, provide warnings, and rally and guide support for first responders and affected people.

She referred to research done by the next speaker, Dr Izak Smit of SANParks, entitled fire as a friend or foe: the role of scientists in balancing media coverage of fires in national parks.

Trevor Abrahams summarised his experiences at two international firefighting conventions
Piet van der Merwe - ops executive at Working on Fire - emphasised the 5Rs of integrated fire management

Smit and his co-researchers conducted a content analysis of media reports on fire in SANParks areas. Their findings confirm the media is reactive and biased. “The media is creating fire anxiety rather than fire resilience in the public. Land managers are under a lot of pressure not to start a fire,” Smit said. “The media uses phrases associated with war to describe fires. Almost 95% of stories about wildfires are negative unless they quote scientists. Unfortunately, scientists don’t have much to say about being proactive.”

WORKING ON FIRE
Trevor Abrahams, MD at Working on Fire, presented an overview of the government-funded organisation’s activities. The programme has grown from 850 people in 2003 to 5300 in 2022. “Our success lies in job creation, community and scholars awareness programmes, and national and international firefighting services,” he said.

Abrahams reported on two international wildfire conferences he recently attended. Globally the increase in mega-fires is attributed to climate change, with more frequent and intense fires happening outside of fire seasons. The conferences also emphasised the fitness and continued readiness training of the crews.

He said building capacity through training and refresher training of ground and aerial firefighters and members of the local Fire Protection Associations (FPAs) is imperative.

The focus should be on prevention and research rather than suppression. “Preventive wildfire fighting and public planning policies can and should play a role in managing fires. Veld and forest maintenance and brush clearing are essential.”

FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATIONS
Paul Gerber of the Southern Cape FPA spoke about the responsibility of FPAs to prepare communities for fires.

“We don’t need complicated systems to know a fire will happen and travel from the northwest in bergwind conditions. We need better communication and proactive members,” Gerber said.

“The Knysna mega-fire started with a lightning strike reported on several occasions two months before the event. When the weather conditions and fuel load were right, nothing we did could have stopped the fires.”

Homeowners and municipalities on the WUI must build a defendable space that protects vulnerable communities. “We need to revisit past research and interventions. In their commissioned report on the Knysna fires, Vulcan Wildfire identified ten strategic objectives that would contribute to preventing mega-fires. All have been ignored for the last three years,” Gerber asserted.

He made the following statements:

  • “We all need to work together.
  • The FPA is not a police service.
  • Municipalities need to look at firescaping and enforcing building regulations.
  • “We need controlled burns to manage our fuel loads.

 

INTEGRATED FIRE MANAGEMENT
The keynote speaker on the second day of the plenary session was Pieter van der Merwe, operations executive at Working on Fire.

He set the stage for a day devoted to integrated fire management (IFM) and the 5Rs system of mitigation focused on:

  • Readiness
  • Reduction
  • Response
  • Recovery
  • Research.

 

Van der Merwe said 80% of the focus is on being proactive. It is essential to take preventive measures to counter the start and spread of fires. Readiness is about establishing systems and acquiring resources and capacity to mitigate the effects of fire and effectively respond to unwanted wildfires. Reduction is the process of reducing or removing the fuel load. This leaves 20% for reactive

fire suppression through coordinating resources, information gathering and communications. After a fire incident, recovery teams, investigators and researchers work together to prevent a similar occurrence.

“Maintaining an 80% proactive focus takes planning, collaboration and dedication with all our partners in the provinces. Fires don’t respect cadastral boundaries, and IFM shouldn’t either,” he concluded.

FPA SURVEY
Val Charlton, MD of Land Works, presented the results of a recent survey to determine the status and sustainability of the FPAs. The survey was voluntary, not punitive and conducted under the auspices of the Umbrella FPA.

“The idea was to see whether FPAs comply with their mandate and understand their role in IFM,” she said. The research team received a list of FPAs from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE). They tried to validate the 228 FPAs that appeared to be operating. Unfortunately, the Free State didn’t cooperate, which left 184 of which 78 (60%) participating in the project.

The survey’s results pave the way for strengthening the role and leadership of the FPAs. Some of Charlton’s comments were:

  • FPAs with a paid manager work well; those with a farmer leading it are not functioning correctly.
  • 70% said they were compliant but were not fully compliant. Fireweb has online self-assessments that will help.
  • State users are not doing their jobs, “The DFFE must ‘klap’ (slap) them.”
  • Dysfunctional FPAs must deregister.

 

MANAGING CONSEQUENCES
A hard-hitting input by Etienne du Toit followed. He is the Western Cape’s local government deputy director of the Fire Brigade Services. He criticised government officials for not attending the symposium saying, “the key role players are not attending. We appoint them, and they report to us. Where are they?”

Like previous speakers, Du Toit wondered about the lack of compliance with planning and building regulations of some properties on the WUI.

“The reality is we can’t suppress mega-fires. We manage the consequences. Risk mitigation is not the fire brigade’s job but the community’s responsibility. No fire service in the world has the resources to respond to a mega-fire.”

He concurred with Charlton, saying, “Problems with integrated fire management are a leadership problem, not a funding problem.”

 
 
Firefighters and fire monitoring equipment during a tea break at the symposium

RINSE, LATHER, REPEAT
Deon Greyling, Mondi’s fire specialist, considered the question, “are commercial forestry companies ready for the next mega-fire? He said the company continually reviews its fire prevention and suppression systems and ways to reduce fuel loads.

“If you are always ready, you don’t need to get ready,” is Mondi’s approach. Greyling said fuel loads drive the fire management plan. “Revisit your fire plan for the next seven to ten years. Repeatedly. Keep assessing your fuel loads. Everything revolves around it. Do simulations and pre-plan with the weather and the fire danger index. Write out your plan and execute it. Rinse, lather, repeat.”

“Access is most important for firefighting. Your crew must be motivated, determined, and on standby in fire-conducive weather conditions. Mondi’s rule is the initial response should be in 10 minutes.” This, with our BIBFF (basic instruction before fighting fire) process, is working well to reduce the impactof fires.”

Greyling said, “aerial support must not be a CEO decision. The crew must make it.” The ergonomics of firefighting are essential. “Give your teams the PPE and tools they need and make sure they know how to use them. Try to get your vehicles made locally and specify your needs. Keep their feet on the ground when accessing equipment on the firetender. No climbing and clambering to get operational,” he advised.

“Compressed air foam (CAF) technology has changed how we fight fires. CAF works, and we are rolling them out to all areas.”

NO FYNBOS BURNS IN WINTER AND SPRING
Dr AnneLise Schutte-Vlok, a landscape ecologist at CapeNature, presented a different and highly pertinent take on prescribed fuel-reducing burns.

She explained how the fauna and flora in fynbos biomes had developed fire survival strategies. Dung beetles, ants, rodents and birds all store the seeds and protect them from wildfires. Different types of seeds respond differently to different kinds of fires.

Repeated low-intensity fires prompt the growth of small-seeded, often weedy pioneer species. These increase the flammability of the veld at an early age due to large loads of fine materials. Veld ignites more easily, resulting in a shorter fire return interval and loss of slow-maturing species.

She said 50% of proteas must flower three times before reaching their threshold. For example, Protea laurifolia needs up to 15 years to produce seeds that will survive. The Cape sugar bird is the most important pollinator and needs veld that is ten years or older.

“We can’t have winter fires, so please do not do prescribed burns in winter. January to early April is the best time for prescribed burns in the fynbos biomes. Repeated low-intensity fires get ferns to proliferate and crowd out other species. Out- of-season fires kill biodiversity,” she emphasised.

SMALL GROWERS
Jeffrey Le Roux Sappi’s fire and silviculture development manager spoke about the effect of wildfires on small and medium timber growers.

“A mega-fire for a small grower can be one hectare,” he said. Small growers comprise 3,8% of the forestry industry and mainly grow coppicing eucalyptus to do continuous harvesting. The financial impact of loss due to fire is vast for smaller

and medium growers. Small growers suffer the most because they can’t spread the risk with various income sources. Most of them do not have firefighting equipment.

TECHNOLOGY
Dr Gavin Hough (EVS) and Noel Harrison (Fireweb) described how early detection technologies prompt rapid response and mitigate the risk of mega-fires.

Digital surveillance, including infra-red cameras, geographic information systems (GIS) and web-based solutions, are invaluable. They provide an early alert and information on burn scars but cannot replace people.

GROUNDWATER
Dr Jo Barnes spoke about the pollution of groundwater. She said groundwater affects fire, and fire affects it. Ash from wildfires alters the acidity of the groundwater. “Two-thirds of South Africa rely on groundwater as their primary water source. But it is unmanaged.”

Barnes warned against fuel reduction burns during a drought without careful planning. The groundwater is lower than the plant roots in a drought, causing a hydrological drought. It burns almost ten times more land than during a non-drought year.

“As climate change accelerates, we will see more unprecedented disasters. Blame will follow. Inquiries will launch. We will ask, again and again, why we cannot seem to prepare. When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.”

FUEL MANAGEMENT
Avelile Cishe’s topic was alternative fuel management methods in South Africa. He is an NMU postgraduate student researching mulching vs discing vs slash reduction methods.

Cishe said the emphasis should be on the nutrient value of the process, not just the budget. Mulching is a good but expensive choice and also leaves tracks behind. However, mulching instead of burning facilitates carbon credits trading to offset emissions tax associated with fuel reduction burns.

More fire management research needs to be communicated to inform everyone.

Angel Goldsmith, a PhD candidate at King’s College in London, continued the conversation about communication. He is developing a behaviour-changing risk message model for early warnings and information dissemination

CONCLUSION
Like its forerunners, delegates left the well-organised symposium with valuable information to consider and implement and good memories of catching up face-to-face with old friends last seen two years ago.

Source: WoodBiz Africa Magazine

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