Mpumalanga prepares for fire season

Thursday, April 16, 2009
By: 
Siphiwe Nyathi

Nelspruit - With memories of the devastating veld fires that raged through Mpumalanga last year still fresh in their minds, authorities are leaving nothing to chance preparing for the coming dry season in the province.

Last year, veld fires began in April and lasted until October, during which time four people, including a fire-fighter, were killed and 325 injured in some of the 67 fires that raged across the province.

The fires also devastated 33 000 hectares of vegetation, 15 000 of that trees on commercial forestry plantations.

"We have already started educating community members at schools and on farms through radio programmes. People must not start fires they can't control," said Working on Fire (WoF) spokesperson in Mpumalanga, Mangaliso Shongwe.

WoF is a government-funded, multi-partner organisation that focuses on fire management, and veld- and wild-fire fighting, even training people from local communities to fight fires.

They also educate communities about the dangers of fires and how to prevent them, co-ordinate prescribed burning activities and rehabilitate burnt areas.

"Since last year's fires WoF and its partners, which include the department of water affairs and forestry, have been working hard to develop strategies to prevent them from happening again," said Mr Shongwe.

He said fire-fighters could only do so much and that WoF had taken stock of the situation in the province and built on processes that worked and discarded those that failed while they were fighting the fires.

Next month WoF will be hosting training camps to prepare fighters from Mpumalanga and Limpopo for the fire season.

"Ultimately the responsibility for fire prevention rests with landowners. There is still too much passing of the buck and not enough responsibility being taken for fires that should never have burned out of control in the first place.

"Simple fire prevention steps could have lessened the fires' ferocity. If a landowner can't afford to take preventative steps to avoid a fire then he should sell his farm," he said.

Over the past year WoF's management team has developed the Integrated Fire Management (IFM) strategy, which includes all the basics of fire fighting such as awareness, prevention, prescribed burning, resource sharing and coordination, fire detection and suppression, and damage rehabilitation.

Mr Shongwe added that they will work in conjunction with government to promote a national fire awareness campaign. One of the posters for the campaign reads: "Don't start fires you can't stop".

WoF has deployed 13 fire-fighting crews in Mpumalanga, whose ability to respond quickly to fires along with fire protection associations and medical teams ensure fires do not get worse.

Wild fires result in damage that runs into millions of Rands, apart from the loss of lives and livelihoods, especially among rural people.

Forestry South Africa spokesperson Mike Edwards said Mpumalanga's forestry sector was hardest hit by last year's fires, suffering losses estimated at R3.5 billion.

"We also expect the prices of timber to continue rising this year and imports to increase, as the long-term effects of the fires will only become apparent in about two years' time," said Mr Edwards.

He said the country is already importing timber to try and close the gap resulting from the loss of production as a result of the fires.