Each year, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park implements its conservation management plan which includes some burning, according to the overall conservation objectives for the world heritage site. With coastal grasslands and savannah forming a significant part of this 332 000 hectare ‘Big Five’ park, fire is an integral part of the ecological functioning of fire-prone natural systems.
Some of South Africa’s last significant coastal grasslands remain in iSimangaliso. Coastal grasslands on the east coast of South Africa were historically abundant, however land-transforming sugar cane fields, timber plantations and human settlement all but destroyed them.
“Fire is an essential management tool for maintaining eco-systems’ functioning and biodiversity, and especially for iSimangaliso’s endemic grasslands which are amongst the last of their kind and of high conservation value. When listed as a world heritage site, there were over eight thousand hectares of commercial forest plantations, planted in grasslands – since the removal of all these exotic trees, a key tool to restoring these grasslands has been fire,” says Andrew Zaloumis, iSimangaliso CEO.
The conservation management of all coastal grasslands should include a burning regime which is essential for regeneration, destruction of alien plants and in many examples of flora, germination of seeds. It also creates better grazing for antelope and other herbivores as it stimulates grass growth, plant vigour and species diversity. Fire is therefore an important tool in terrestrial conservation management practice and grassland restoration.
Implementation of this burning regimen involves ‘hot fires’ under low humidity/high temperature days to control bush encroachment, focusing on the particular conservation needs for an area. In some cases identified blocks are burned in sequence, in autumn through to winter, based on humidity and favourable wind conditions, for some protection against uncontrolled wild fires.
In some areas where conservation areas abut commercial timber plantations, while not in the best interest of sustainable conservation management, it is necessary to burn to keep fuel loads down due to the increased risks imposed by commercial timber plantations, and ‘cooler’ burns are used.
Runaway fires are a different scenario altogether. Sometimes a result of untended braai or homestead fires, these fires could also be set off by broken glass refracting sunlight, lightning strikes (as was a notorious case on the Western Shores in 2005 when up to 11 individual strikes set the then gum plantations alight in the face of gale force winds) or in many cases, arson by poachers or fires started by wild honey gatherers. In such cases the consequences can be disastrous for people, animals and property, and in such situations everyone rallies around to mitigate the consequences. The Department of Environmental Affairs’ Working on Fire Programme, in conjunction with the Zululand Fire Protection Association (ZFPA), is proving extremely valuable in assisting iSimangaliso with the challenges presented by accidental and wild natural fires.
“Fire is a two-edged sword,” says Dr Guy Preston, the DEA DDG responsible for Environmental Programmes, under which the Working on Fire programme falls. “The destruction of property, loss of life, loss of game and livestock, loss of livelihoods and especially the impact on the poor, is well known to us all. We must take every precaution to prevent wild fires, but also to be ready to respond at short notice when we have such fires. The Working on Fire programme is an exceptional resource in this regard, and has done excellent work in partnership with iSimangaliso and its neighbours in this regard.”
According to Carl Myhill, “the right equipment, good attitude, safety, team work and physical energy all contribute to successful fire fighting and management.”
For more information on the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, visit www.isimangaliso.com.