Climate Change: The present and growing threat of wildland fires in South Africa

21 December, 2021

The recent COP26 on climate change in Glasgow was recognised as finally having put the critical issue of loss and damage squarely on the main stage of the climate change debate. It was acknowledged that, while much of the debates revolved around commitments aimed at limiting the increase in global average temperature to 1,5 degrees Celsius, climate change is already causing devastating losses of lives, land and livelihoods.

Uncontrolled disaster wildland fires have been one of the most visible negative impacts of climate change on a global scale. Indeed, researchers in Canada recently found that, “the world’s eight most extreme wildfire weather years have occurred in the last decade”, according to a new study that suggests extreme fire weather is being driven by a decrease in atmospheric humidity coupled with rising temperatures.

“Extreme conditions drive the world’s fire activity,” said former University of Alberta wildfire expert Michael Flannigan, who conducted the research with study lead Piyush Jain, research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, and Sean Coogan, post-doctoral fellow in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. Jain said, “The study links the trends in rising global temperatures and decreases in humidity to the likelihood that naturally occurring extreme fire events will happen more often, spread to new areas and burn more intensely than ever before in recorded history. This has important implications for fire management as well as public safety, particularly as we can expect even more extreme fire weather to occur with the further warming of the climate.”

South Africa is no different in that while there have been large disaster fires across the country’s history, it is important to note, but not surprising, that the recent disaster fires have been occurring with increasing regularity. By way of example, here are some of the largest wildland fires over the past five years.

  • 2017 (June) – Knysna / Tsitsikama Fires

100,000ha burnt | More than 800 structures damaged | 6 Lives lost

  • 2018 (October / November) – George Fires

85,000ha burnt | 21 Structures damaged | 3 Lives lost

  • 2019 (January) – Overstand Fires

13,000ha burnt | 31 Residential properties destroyed and 28 damaged | 1 Life lost

  • 2020 (October) – Free State Fires

12,000ha farmland burnt | No structures damaged or lives lost

  • 2021 (April) – UCT/Table Mountain Fire

709ha burnt | Estimated R1bn Damages | 2 Homes, 1 restaurant, 3 buildings at UCT and 1 historic structure burnt, invaluable library material lost at UCT | No lives lost

  • 2021 (September) – Northern Cape Fires

709,568 ha burnt | 8 Farm houses burnt down, 22 stores and packing rooms and 21 farm houses damaged | 4 Fatalities and several people injured

The present trajectory of climate change suggests that much worse is yet to come, even as the fire emergency services in many parts of the country struggle to meet the demand for their services. However, a glimmer of hope emerges from the gloom of the litany of failed and failing state structures and SOE’s. The government funded Working on Fire (WOF) programme, part of the broader Expanded Public Works Programmes, has grown over the past 18 years to become a globally recognised wild land fire fighting force. This programme is clearly one of the undersold success stories in government’s EPWP initiatives.

Indeed, since its inception in 2003, WOF dispatch, aerial resources, ground teams and vehicles have always been the major components of combating disaster fires in South Africa.  As the table below indicates, the WOF personnel, vehicles and aerial resources have been the major component of the firefighting resources in these disaster fires.

 

 

Percentage of WoF Resources at these Fires

Major Fire Location Year Losses Fire Fighters Vehicles Helicopter Bombers Spotters
Knysna 2017 6 Lives 63% 46% 50% 100% 100%
100 000 Ha 800 Structures
George 2018 3 Lives 74% 48%% 100% 100% 100%
85 000 Ha 21 Structures
Overstrand 2019 0 Lives 73% 40% 0% 100% 100%
13 000 Ha 1 Structure
Free State 2020 0 Lives 73%% 40% 0% 100% 100%
12 000 Ha 0 Structures
UCT/Table Mountain 2021 0 Lives 68% 45% 67% 0% 100%
709 Ha 7 Structures
Northern Cape 2021 0 Lives 57% 31% 0% 0% 0%
50 000 Ha 4 Structures

 

Moreover, Working on Fire has also had the distinction of flying the South African flag high in international deployments to Chile, Indonesia and on four occasions, to Canada.  In its last deployment to Manitoba, Canada in August-September 2021, the Manitoba Minister for Climate and Conservation issued a personal letter of appreciation to each of the 109 Working on Fire personnel, who served with distinction in assisting the Manitoba Wildfire department in managing its wildfires, in a season where Canada experienced record levels of wildland fires from British Columbia to Ontario.

WOF employs more than 5,000 formerly unemployed young men and women in fire prone regions of the country, train them into skilled, fit firefighters, provide them with the appropriate Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment, and deploys them at some 235 bases in all 9 provinces in the country. The WOF programme also encompasses an invasive alien eradication project targeting inaccessible mountainous areas, the High-Altitude Teams (HAT) and a Forestry Support Programme (FSP) to assist with fire management on the state’s forests.

The WOF programme was developed on the basis of a private company, Kishugu Holdings Pty LTD, who used its prior experience in serving the forestry industry in Mpumalanga and a study tour of the US Forestry service in early 2003. Kishugu has developed an Integrated Fire Management (IFM) approach to managing wildland fire in South Africa. This is a globally recognised approach to managing wild land fires, encompassing (i) Fire Awareness Education in fire prone communities and schools, (ii) Fuel Load Reduction / Prescribed Burning / Manual Clearing (iii) Early Terrestrial and Satellite Detection, (iv) Dispatch and Coordination, (v) Deployment of Aerial, Ground Suppression Forces and Firefighting Vehicles, (vi) Rehabilitation and (vii) Applied Fire Research.

Moreover, Kishugu has spent some R287m of its own resources on aerial firefighting capacity over the past 18 years to produce a dedicated aerial firefighting force of helicopter water bombers, fixed-wing bombers and fixed wing spotter command and control aircraft. It is important to underscore that these aircraft acquisitions were a wholly private sector initiative which has provided the country with a dedicated aerial firefighting capacity. Kishugu aviation provides the aerial capacity to WOF.

It is important to clarify that the use of aerial firefighting capacity in combatting wildland fires is an indispensable component managing wildland fires globally. The nature of such fires and inaccessible terrain makes it a pivotal element in combating wildland fires. Ground forces cannot confront a raging wildland fire without the benefit of aerial attacks to subdue the flames for ground crews to suppress and mop up the fire. It is through the collaboration of ground and aerial resrouces that succes is achieved.

WOF’s contribution to combatting on average 2,500 wildland fires per annum is not the only accolade of this award-winning programme. WOF’s achievements include having some 30%. Women in its ranks (the highest in any comparable firefighting forces in the world) and 50% women in its management. Indeed, some 60% of WOF management are former firefighters who have risen through the ranks, supported by development programmes such as those at UCT Business School and the University of the Free State. The scale of the transformation of the WOF firefighters lives is also evident in the many former firefighters, who are able to progress to full time jobs in SAPS, SANDF, Municipalities, Conservations Agencies, various private sector employment and becoming  entrepreneurs in various fields.

The employment opportunity afforded to the more than 5,000 youth in WOF is no small achievement in the context of the stubbornly high unemployment in South Africa, particularly amongst the youth. The WOF programme also exposes these youth to a range of social development initiatives such as education around substance abuse, gender-based violence, addressing food security through cultivation of vegetable gardens, etc. The biennial Social Impact Studies conducted by external experts have confirmed the tremendous positive impact the WOF programme has on the socio-economic well-being of the programme personnel and their dependents, as well as providing them with a stepping stone to permanent employment.

The future of the WOF programme is obviously subject to the availability of government funding. However, the success of this youth employment programme which delivers such significant returns, should warrant private sector participation and even international donor participation in so successful an intervention to address both youth unemployment and environmental degradation. It is imperative that the WOF programme be developed further as South Africa most certainly faces a growing challenge of unwanted wildland fires, to better face this challenge which climate change has wrought across the globe.

✒️Trevor Abrahams: Working on Fire Managing Director.

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