Fire - can be friend or foe
17:25 (GMT+2), Thu , 07 August 2014
ZFPA Fire officer - Tony Roberts
Tony Roberts

FIRES are, and always have been, a part of the South African landscape.

They occur as a natural phenomenon in grasslands, woodlands, fynbos and sometimes in indigenous forests.

South Africa has two fire seasons according to rainfall patterns.

The first is the dry summer months in the Western Cape and secondly, during the dry winter months in the rest of the country.

Often wildland  res are started by lightning or, in mountainous regions, by falling rocks.

Most, however, are started by accident when people are careless with open flames and are indifferent to the consequences of their carelessness.

Cigarettes, exhaust heated carbon fragments, motor vehicle accidents, hot brake drums and sparks off railway tracks are also considered as ignition sources.

About 70% of the ecosystems covering South Africa are fire-adapted.

They need to burn in order to maintain their ecological integrity, but because of human activity there is a need to manage fire in a manner that is appropriate for the land-use and land-type, while maintaining natural processes and patterns as far as possible.

Fire management as a tool

Over a million years ago early humans began to utilise fire and for the last 100 000 years modern humans have used veld fires for hunting and for managing their environment.

Seventeenth-century European settlers responded to risks and mismanagement of veld fires by issuing decrees against the starting of veld fires.

Over time, laws focussed on preventing fires in forests and a split grew between management of fires on forest land and those on pastoral or grazing land.

This could be seen in the old Forest Act of 1984.

Today, fire is still employed in the management of veld and forest, to control grazing and habitats, and as a tool in the prevention of uncontrolled fires.

However, small fires frequently escalate into disastrous, uncontrolled wild fires.

This led to a new act being promulgated in 1998 titled the Veld and Forest Fire Act of 1998 and this Act deals with veld fires on all types of land use in rural areas.

Zululand Fire Protection Association

The ZFPA has 17 cameras covering a forestry area of 140 000 ha, between Fairbreeze in the south and Nyalazi in the north.

Images of fires in plantations, sugar cane, urban and rural grassland areas as well as communities are relayed back to an operations room based in KwaMbonambi.

This is manned 24 hours per day by specially trained detection staff.

Fully trained ground resource fire fighters or aircraft are despatched to the fire immediately to bring it under control.

The ZFPA has excellent working cooperation with uMhlathuze City Fire Department, Alpha Security as well as iMvula Maxim Security, who also man 24-hour operations centres and fires reported to them are in turn, reported to the ZFPA operations centre.

The ZFPA has experienced 380 fires during this fire season to date.

Owing to the incredibly dry conditions which could last until January 2015, the number of fires this year is expected to be drastically higher than previous years.

Twenty-six of the fires have been flown and extinguished with the aid of two 400 gallon Ayres Turbo Thrust aircraft.

A small amount of Fire Suppressant (Phoenix) or Retarden T (Firetroll) is mixed with the water to assist with extinguishing the fire.

These aircraft are based in KwaMbonambi for four months from 1 July to 31 October of each year.

The chemical used in the water is not harmful to any person or wildlife.

Fires and the intensity of fires are related to rainfall, or the lack thereof.

To date only 335mm of rain has been received creating dry conditions.

Coupled with the dry conditions, low humidities and higher than normal winds, are a recipe for disaster.

Deliberate fires or suspected cases of arson account for a greater percentage in the initial two months of the year and again from June onwards towards December.


Owing to the large number of fires in Zululand and specifically around KwaMbonambi, a meeting was called with all farmers on 17 February 1954 to discuss the formation of a Fire Protection Committee for the area.

This committee functioned for the next 40 years until in 1994 the Zululand Fire Protection Association was established and today encompasses an area from the uThukela River in the south and extends all the way up to Manguzi in the north.

In terms of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act of 1998, the responsibility for the start or spread of a veld fire rests with the land-user.

The Act promotes the formation of Fire Protection Associations (FPAs).

It is compulsory for all public landowners to be members of a local FPA and private landowners are encouraged to join.

The national co-ordination of fire fighting emergencies is enabled by the Disaster Management Act of 2002, which supplies a clear hierarchical structure outlining the powers and duties of the authorities at national, provincial and local level.

It also provides policy and a framework within which disaster management centres, plans and strategies can be established.

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