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Fires in iSimangaliso

Fires in iSimangaliso

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.

iSimangaliso uses controlled burning to address the productivity of land, bringing back the palatable grasses, controlling invasive plants like Chromolaena odorata and helping to reduce bush encroachment.

iSimangaliso uses controlled burning to address the productivity of land, bringing back the palatable grasses, controlling invasive plants like Chromolaena odorata and helping to reduce bush encroachment.

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.

Since iron-age times, fires in iSimangaliso have been key to establishing and maintaining the very rich and biodiverse coastal grasslands. Recently burned sections of grassland are favoured by many animal species that enjoy the ash deposits as well as the new flush of grass that begins to sprout soon after a burn.

Since iron-age times, fires in iSimangaliso have been key to establishing and maintaining the very rich and biodiverse coastal grasslands. Recently burned sections of grassland are favoured by many animal species that enjoy the ash deposits as well as the new flush of grass that begins to sprout soon after a burn.


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.

Says iSimangaliso’s Land Care Manager, Carl Myhill (left): “iSimangaliso’s coastal grasslands have a long history of association with fire. For thousands of years, fires have occurred naturally, and were also part of the original inhabitants’ land management to improve grazing for cattle. In the absence of fire, many areas of the park would be vulnerable to encroachment by woody plants leading to a loss of valuable coastal grasslands. It is therefore an integral part of iSimangaliso and its conservation agent Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s management strategy to maintain ecosystem functioning and biodiversity and retain these habitats for grazing game species.” Mike Bouwer, iSimangaliso’s Infrastructure Manager (above, right), monitors the edges of planned burning blocks to stamp out stray sparks that could cause the rapid spread of flames, as well as to mitigate risk to neighbours’ gum trees.

Says iSimangaliso’s Land Care Manager, Carl Myhill (left): “iSimangaliso’s coastal grasslands have a long history of association with fire. For thousands of years, fires have occurred naturally, and were also part of the original inhabitants’ land management to improve grazing for cattle. In the absence of fire, many areas of the park would be vulnerable to encroachment by woody plants leading to a loss of valuable coastal grasslands. It is therefore an integral part of iSimangaliso and its conservation agent Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s management strategy to maintain ecosystem functioning and biodiversity and retain these habitats for grazing game species.” Mike Bouwer, iSimangaliso’s Infrastructure Manager (above, right), monitors the edges of planned burning blocks to stamp out stray sparks that could cause the rapid spread of flames, as well as to mitigate risk to neighbours’ gum trees.


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.”

Working on Fire contractors and Ezemvelo setting fire to back-burn against a threatening runaway bush fire in August 2014. The Working on Fire crew come with a great big yellow Unimog truck equipped with chunky tyres, a 2000L water tank, fire beaters, rake hoes, water hoses, specialized knap sack sprayers and an enthusiastic, fit crew of 21 people.

Working on Fire contractors and Ezemvelo setting fire to back-burn against a threatening runaway bush fire in August 2014. The Working on Fire crew come with a great big yellow Unimog truck equipped with chunky tyres, a 2000L water tank, fire beaters, rake hoes, water hoses, specialized knap sack sprayers and an enthusiastic, fit crew of 21 people.

In extreme cases of rapidly spreading rogue fires, aerial assistance is called in to drop loads of water over burning areas threatening settlements and company assets e.g. Park infrastructure or neighbours’ plantations. This is obviously a challenging business that involves good communications with ground crew and a spotter pilot circling above the smoke. Visibility is often poor making operations difficult; furthermore, a load of water could be fatal for ground personnel!

In extreme cases of rapidly spreading rogue fires, aerial assistance is called in to drop loads of water over burning areas threatening settlements and company assets e.g. Park infrastructure or neighbours’ plantations. This is obviously a challenging business that involves good communications with ground crew and a spotter pilot circling above the smoke. Visibility is often poor making operations difficult; furthermore, a load of water could be fatal for ground personnel!


For more information on the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, visit www.isimangaliso.com.

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