It's our responsibility to prevent dangerous fires

Lion's Head and Signal Hill ablaze on January 27 2019.
Lion's Head and Signal Hill ablaze on January 27 2019.
Image: Instagram/superbmx

Winter is veld fire season in the summer rainfall areas of SA.

In Africa, veld fires are a normal and natural phenomenon. Indeed, our indigenous fynbos and Africa's vast grasslands largely owe their existence and maintenance to a natural cycle of veld fires.

Without these fires, shrubs and trees would choke out the grass and certain plant species would not seed and regrow when the spring rains come.

However, a new and unnatural phenomenon is changing the natural cycle of veld fires - climate change.

The climate change that we are precipitating through our emissions of greenhouse gases from, for example, our cars and coal-fired power stations, is already manifesting itself in extreme weather events that effect veld fires.

Although we are used to events such as electric storms, droughts, high winds and floods, climate change is making these extreme weather events more unpredictable, more frequent, and more violent.

As one can imagine, extreme dry conditions, high temperatures and high winds can create the 'perfect storm' for runaway and extremely destructive veld fires.

Unfortunately, the tragic injustice of climate change is that often the people who have contributed the least to climate change suffer the most - those who live in conditions of poverty in urban and rural communities.

Furthermore, the local authorities who are responsible for protecting us from this increasing threat, often struggle to keep up with the rate of change.

This year, more fires are expected because of the prolonged drought and extremely dry conditions over large parts of the country.

Fortunately, our local authorities, Fire Protection Association and disaster management bodies do not have to deal with these problems alone. They have the support of Working on Fire.

Stationed in various provinces across the country, the department of environment, forestry and fisheries's Working on Fire teams not only assist communities, farmers and landowners with fire suppression, but are also deployed where needed to assist local fire fighters and disaster management teams to extinguish blazes.

Trained in the prevention and control of Wildland fires, these men and women work to enhance the sustainability and protection of life, property and the environment through the implementation of Integrated Fire Management practices.

They not only fight fires on the ground, but also make use of 13 Huey helicopters, 15 fixed-wing spotter planes and four fixed-wing water bombers that provide essential aerial fire-fighting services.

Working on Fire is administered through the Extended Public Works Programme and provides work opportunities, skills training and personal development to communities drawn into the programme. The focus is on young people and women, with around 85% of crews comprising young people. About 30% are women.

The programme currently offers work opportunities and training to 5,000 people who have been recruited from both urban and rural communities. These teams are trained in fire awareness, education, prevention and suppression skills.

While Working on Fire is an Expanded Public Works Programme initiative to create work opportunities, many of the young people who have previously been involved in the programme have since moved on to permanent careers within the sector, with some starting their own businesses.

Community awareness of the causes of fires, and what to do when a fire breaks out is of utmost importance, particularly because fires in high density communities, such as informal settlements, can lead to loss of life.

It is therefore important that all South Africans act responsibly and refrain from, for example, throwing burning matches or cigarette butts into dry grass, or leaving braziers or candles unattended.

Working on Fire is there to help.

* Creecy is the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries

X