Western Cape prepares for potentially catastrophic wildfires this summer

A devastating veld fire destroyed large parts of the Swartberg Mountains and farms between the Cango Caves and Meiringspoort in December 2016. On the photo Maggie Fourie, owner of the Oudemuragie Guest Farm, looks at the destruction on her farm. Photo: Liesel le Roux

A devastating veld fire destroyed large parts of the Swartberg Mountains and farms between the Cango Caves and Meiringspoort in December 2016. On the photo Maggie Fourie, owner of the Oudemuragie Guest Farm, looks at the destruction on her farm. Photo: Liesel le Roux

The Western Cape is preparing for the threat of potentially catastrophic wildfires this summer. The 2017/18 fire season is expected to be one of the worst in recent memory with hot, dry and windy conditions expected across the province which is already impacted by a severe drought.

Local Government and Environmental Affairs Minister Anton Bredell says about 9 000 wildfires were reported in the Western Cape between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, many of them wreaking havoc and straining resources. “We are concerned about this season and we implore the public to work with us to reduce fire risk and report fires speedily when they are observed. Please do not throw out cigarette butts or make open fires outside when the wind is blowing.”

In preparation for the season ahead, the Western Cape government and its fire partners have ramped up resources in order to respond to fires in the shortest possible time. This season the provincial disaster management centre will co-ordinate 24 aircraft in key locations. These include ten Cessna spotter aircraft, ten Bell UH-1 helicopters and four fixed wing Airtractor 802 water bombers. Some 36 runways have been prepared for these aircraft in strategic areas so that they can be deployed rapidly to where veld and vegetation have caught alight.

The airborne resources will be complemented by 1550 municipal firefighters across the province, bolstered by about 1020 seasonal firefighters (municipal and other organisations). There are also 31 Working on Fire (WoF) teams with about 830 members in the Western Cape, and an additional 500 members in other provinces who can be called on if needed.

In addition, two specialised interagency wildland firefighting crews have been contracted to respond to major wildfires in the province. These specially trained teams are rapidly deployed directly to the fire-line, enabling an initial attack on major wildfires.

The season was officially kicked off with a simulation of operational readiness in Somerset West today at Vergelegen Wine Estate. The estate, which hosted the event, has reduced its vulnerability to fire by clearing dense alien vegetation from over 2000 hectares, enabling indigenous vegetation to flourish and reducing fire risk. The programme has generated over 230 jobs for previously unemployed and untrained people and boosted water reserves, flora and fauna on the estate.

According to Bredell the province’s response plans are designed around the principle of responding rapidly to a wildfire in its early stages with the maximum number of aircraft and ground teams. “By gaining control within the first hour, the possibility of a major incident is minimised.”

Critical partners in the Western Cape wildfire programme include WoF, the City of Cape Town’s Fire Service, district municipality fire services, SANParks, CapeNature, volunteer firefighters and fire protection associations.

Bredell encouraged the public to create “defensible spaces” around their homes by clearing all flammable vegetation within 10 metres of the dwellings. Dead leaves, small trees and bush should be cut to leave widely spaced, larger trees. Tree branches within five metres of a home should be trimmed and removed, as well as dead branches overhanging a building.

He also urged the public not to distribute unverified reports of arson and fire but to report any concerns to the nearest police station. “The emergency toll-free number to dial in the event of a fire, free from any cellphone, is 112.”

When reporting fires, the public can also contact the closest Local District Municipality: Eden – 044 805 5071; Central Karoo – 023 414 2603; City of Cape Town – 021 480 7700 from a cell phone; Overberg – 028 425 1690; West Coast – 022 433 8700; Cape Winelands – 021 887 4446.

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