Prof Adrie Boshoff is dwarfed by shrubs growing on firebreaks at the Witfontein state forest. Photo: Pauline Lourens
GEORGE NEWS - Due to its geographic location, George is extremely vulnerable to the danger of runaway fires.
This was evident in the first week of June when 40 veld fires broke out and came within metres of razing homes.
The billions of rand in damage and loss of life in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay was a shattering event from which lessons must be learnt.
A worried Glen Barrie resident, Prof Adrie Boshoff, is appealing to local and national government and local municipalities, as well as Georgians, to mobilise and put measures in place to save George from a similar fate. "We need a task force that will implement a fire protection plan and plot the way forward for land management, especially for those areas regarded as no man's land," he said this week.
"Runaway fires must be kept away from our homes. It will not take much for the Witfontein state forest and overgrown invasive bush (especially on the northern and north-eastern boundaries of George) to go up in flames. George must be made less vulnerable. In some areas - like Heatherlands and Glen Barry - there are only 13-metre-clearings between homes and the nearby state forest. Overgrown municipal land bordering Denneoord has been the subject of a lot of controversy.
The strong August wind, if matched by continued drought conditions, could spell disaster for George. The berg winds which gust up to 40km/h are nowhere near the abnormal 100km/h supercharged winds experienced in June. Nonetheless, the prospect of this annual phenomenon is making people jittery, and with reason. Pine has a higher fuel loading than fynbos and burns with a higher heat intensity, thus posing a greater threat."
He says the loss of more lives is too horrible to contemplate and asks that Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and Western Cape Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning Anton Bredell should avail funds to implement an immediate programme in hazardous areas.
For more than eight years the National Department of Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) was allowed to fall into a state of dereliction on the north-eastern borders of George and warnings from the local disaster management fell on deaf ears.
Although MTO/Cape Pine was appointed to take over management, they seem to have fallen behind in clearing areas bordering Heatherlands and further afield. MTO General Manager Irvine Kanyemba, approached for comment, promised he would respond as soon as possible.
Working for Fire
Prof Boshoff, who was active in ratepayers' and local botanical garden organisations till recently, says George Municipality has a moral and legal obligation to safeguard its citizens against fire.
"It must undertake all reasonable measures to protect the town, but is now faced with the consequences of years of neglect of state-owned, privately owned and municipal land.
Fire protection has become an overwhelming task because of the build-up of flammable material (also known as fuel loading). State-funded intervention through a Working for Fire programme and the national government's Extended Public Works Programme (ECWP) must be brought about."
The George Municipality is planning more controlled burns to lessen the threat of wildfires.
The local municipal fire chief, Neels Barnard, whose fire brigade has been praised for their valiant fire-fighting efforts, said during an inspection of the northern borders of town on 3 July that an axis of fire service roads are meticulously maintained; that one bossiekapper is used for this; and that his department was scheduled to start controlled fires in various areas including the borders of Denneoord.
He gave his assurance that Georgians should not be worried. Two controlled fires have been done this year and more are in the pipeline. Barnard said a municipal air strip, adjacent to Denneoord, has been prepared to facilitate aerial water bombings. The strip can accommodate fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters and is ready for use.
Three NGOs will be holding meetings in the next fortnight in order to put measures into place to safeguard George against runaway fires. These include the Wilderness and Ratepayers and Residents Association (WRRA); the Wildlife and Environmental Affairs of SA (Wessa) (read more elsewhere on this page and on page 7) and the South Cape Land Initiative (SCLI).
Last week worried local citizens highlighted comments made by Dr Tony Rebelo, a restoration ecologist with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi). Dr Rebelo said although alien vegetation is exacerbating the fire hazards on the Garden Route it must be emphasised that "...in the absence of a burn-strategy, the fuel load increases until conditions are reached when it is impossible to put out and control a fire. The general public and municipalities do not contribute to keeping fuel load low around human structures, and then are surprised when they burn down. The solution is to embrace fires as being natural, and use it as a tool to help control and eradicate aliens, and keep fynbos fuel load to a safe level."