Uncontrolled veld fires wreak havoc in South Africa every year, costing many people – too many – their homes or lives. But if we all tried to be more firewise, individually and as communities, the damage would be greatly limited, says Petra Vandecasteele.
I was four months pregnant when we experienced our first fire on the mountain above Gordon’s Bay where we live. A southeaster was blowing at gale force, pulling the wipers off my windscreen while I was driving. No helicopter could possibly fly over the area to help extinguish the flames, and we were told the fire brigade had called the last of the 300 fire-fighting vehicles available in the Western Cape to Sir Lowry’s Pass to try to control ‘the inferno’ there. We were left to ourselves, with giant flames sprouting rapidly all around our self-built house. We were totally unprepared for this – and nearly lost our home.
Today, 18 years later, we’ve experienced numerous fires on the mountain. But we’ve also learnt that if you live in an area prone to fire, you must be ‘firewise’. It’s all well and good relying on the fire brigade, but what if they can’t make it in time? So we believe you have to take responsibility for yourselves and your property. You have to consider your neighbours too, who’ll be at additional risk if you don’t.
During the recent fires in the Western Cape we were fairly confident we’d be able to handle a threat to ourselves, thanks to a two-phase strategy we’d put into action.
Phase one: Garden prep
The first phase had involved designing and maintaining a garden that would make it unlikely for a fire to come up to or surround our house. We did this by keeping highly flammable trees (such as pines) a safe distance from the house and stripping other trees of growth from the ground up to about double the height of the plants around them. This has reduced the risk their catching fire from plants burning beneath them. Also, throughout the year we remove any brittle branches that could easily catch fire.
Fynbos and fire
We live right on the edge of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve and our garden is not walled or fenced, so we are fully surrounded by fynbos. This comes up to a metre from the house. In terms of landscaping, vygies, bitter aloes (Aloe ferox), agapanthus and wild garlic serve as good firebreaks, thanks to having a high moisture content that makes it longer for them to catch fire. And they’re all indigenous. Last year we spent at least R6 000 on phase one, including the cost of a new chainsaw and the labour for year-round alien removal.
Without fire, fynbos would disappear. Fynbos fires are a natural process which occur in summer every 12 to 15 years. Fire is the life-giving force of fynbos, but when fires occur too often in the same fynbos areas, many shrubs that are slow to mature are eliminated.
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A lot of this work takes place outside the boundaries of our property, but if we didn’t do it, nobody would. And if anybody else does it, the chances are they’ll cut away the indigenous vegetation and leave all the dry wood behind. We’ve ‘been there’, and when the fire came it was a disaster.
So rather spend the money; it’s a lot cheaper than having to rebuild your home and garden.
Phase two: Housing prep
However well prepared you are, the wind can blow sparks right onto your house. This is where phase two kicks in.
From experience we know that everyone on the mountain is going to use all the water they can get out of their taps and there’ll be hardly any pressure left for us. First time round, we gazed at our
swimming pool with no way of using its much-needed water. Since then we’ve acquired a submersible pump (R980 from Builders) which we can connect to two pipes leading to strategic risk areas in the garden. We can also manipulate the pool filtration circuit to send water to a spray nozzle on the roof. And we’ve installed two extra taps in the garden, again in higher risk areas.
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Prepare for power outages
During the last fire on the mountain we had several power cuts. This alerted me to the fact that there’s still one crucial item missing in our strategy, a generator, as without one we might not be able to use our pool pump.
Have a plan
No matter how well you’ve prepared for it, an approaching fire is still a stressful event. To help us cope without panicking, I’ve found it helpful to have an action plan ready.
Petra’s 9-point Action Plan
- Call stand-by rescue team of friends to know who’s available.
- Put pump and pipes in place and check that everything is in working order. Know how to fix anything that isn’t.
- Take children and pets to a safe location.
- Outdoors: remove all wooden furniture and items near the house that can catch fire.
- Indoors: remove curtains, blinds and anything inflammable that is close to the windows (chairs, tables, etc).
- Pack a limited number of bags with valuables (family pictures/paintings, back-up disks).
- Remove motor vehicles.
- Prepare personal protection: firefighting clothes (long sleeves, long pants) and wet cloth to put in front of mouth, glasses (the smoke will hurt your lungs and eyes).
- If critical: wet your hair and clothes, wet all the windows and doors (inside and outside), and wet all the fixed woodwork near the windows inside the house.
There is one thing that still keeps me awake at night – a short stretch of mature pine trees behind some of our neighbours’ gardens. This is a major threat to our property because if it catches fire – and we’ve seen it happen – it’s like a Devil’s braai with flames reaching 20 metres high or more.
Situations like this indicate that we need to communicate more with one another and follow the example of communities who work together to be firewise for the protection of all.
Last but not least, it’s always a good idea to check if your house insurance is up-to-date . . . just in case.
Working on Fire
The Working on Fire Programme is a concept adopted from the USA that, in collaboration with CapeNature, has been tailored to suit South Africa. The programme’s firewise course highlights the
importance of being aware of the risks involved with veld fires and teaches people how to protect their homes and properties against wildfires.
In firewise communities, people work together to prevent wildfires from threatening livelihoods or damaging properties. They do this by removing invasive alien plants and deadwood from around their properties, clearing enough space for fire-fighting vehicles to turn around in, ensuring that fire hydrants are operational, and nurturing local partnerships for improved decision-making on safety issues.
For more information on how to create your own firewise community, contact Working on Fire, [email protected].
Words Petra Vandecasteele
Photography Paul Godard; Thys Lombard; Tom Sutcliffe