Firefighters thanked for their brave efforts

Monday, June 12, 2017

Pretoria - Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has commended firefighters from the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Working on Fire (WoF) programme for their brave efforts in providing assistance to fire authorities in the Eastern and Southern Cape.

“In one of the largest local deployment of firefighting services, WoF has deployed more than 800 firefighters in Knysna and Natures Valley. About 450 of these firefighters are in Knysna forming the bulk of firefighting efforts in the area.

“In the Sarah Baartman District, Working on Fire will have close to 400 firefighters assembled by this afternoon,” the department said.

The department said an additional 50 firefighters from Gauteng, flew into Port Elizabeth this morning to bolster firefighting efforts in the Eastern Cape.

The aviation unit of WoF has also been activated with two spotter planes, four helicopters and one Airtractor 802 water bomber supplementing by the South African National Defence Force helicopters deployed in the Southern Cape.

“Due to the unpredictable nature and fluidity of wildfires, I encourage local communities to heed all warnings from disaster management officials as our firefighters work swiftly to contain the fires,” said Minister Molewa.

Multiple wild fires have engulfed parts of the Southern Cape, in particular the coastal town of Knysna, which led to loss of life and several communities having to evacuate their homes.

The department has expressed condolences to the affected communities in the Southern Cape for the loss of life, injuries and loss of property, and expressed gratitude to the firefighters for their tireless effort on the frontline.

The department said firefighting efforts have been severely hampered by strong gusty winds and with the dry and hot temperatures at times, a number of smaller runaway fires flared up across the greater Knysna area.

Minister Molewa has reiterated the importance for South Africa and Africa as a whole of adapting to climate change, referring to recent natural disasters like the droughts, fires and floods. 

The entire country was gripped in one of the most devastating droughts in living memory over the last two to three years with some parts still being severely impacted on by droughts with a negative effect on our economy as a whole. 

The Western Cape dams had been reduced to less than 10% of their extractable water before the floods of the last few days. 

A similar scenario played itself out in in other parts of the country, with Gauteng being hit by cloudbursts and subsequent flooding. 

While the northern parts of the country had heavy rain, in contrast the Western Cape had one of the worst wild fire seasons in more than a decade.

A similar scenario played itself out on a smaller geographical scale in the Western Cape last week, with the western parts of the province receiving heavy rains and the Southern Cape having hot and very windy days which largely lead to the fires getting out of control. 

“Although we cannot change the weather, we can adapt to it by using our renewable resources such as water and land wisely,” said Minister Molewa.

The department’s environmental programmes which include Working on Fire, Working for Water, Working for Wetlands, Working for Ecosystems, Working for Land and Working for the Coast all focus on restoring and conserving our water, soil and biodiversity resources. 

“The aim is to restore our natural landscapes in order to be more resilient to droughts, floods and fires while enhancing the consumptive and non-consumptive use of our resources. 

“The clearing of invasive alien plants from our catchments and rivers for example not only improves stream flow during dry periods but reduces the risk of flooding by clearing dense stands of invasives that clog up river courses,” the Minister said.

Healthy wetlands slow down floods and improve water infiltration and a mosaic of veld ages in fire prone biomes like the fynbos, the savannahs and the grasslands minimizes the risk of disaster fires.

Minister Molewa has reiterated the necessity of respecting the potential impact of fires on the wildland urban and commercial agriculture interface; as a serious build-up of invasive alien plant invasions increases the risk of fire damage. 

Working on Fire programme will in due course assess the areas burnt during the fires in the Southern Cape to see where invasive alien plants could have contributed to the severity of the fires and in the process added to the damage. –

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