Strong wind brings fire hell to the interior

With storm-strength winds, bone-dry fields and areas where no controlled burns have been done due to late rains, it was a hellish weekend of wildfires for many farmers and firefighters across large parts of South Africa – and it was just the beginning.

Eric Stoch, chairman of North West’s umbrella fire protection association, expects a difficult fire season because late rains and frost have made it difficult for farmers and other landowners to conduct controlled burns.

Firefighting teams in North West were busy over the weekend with seven fires raging in the Potchefstroom area. Four fires broke out around Klerksdorp, and there were also fires at Sannieshof.

By Monday, all the fires were under control and members of the fire protection associations were conducting patrols. “This is the follow-up work we do to ensure there are no stumps, plastic, grass tufts or cow pats smouldering in the field. Such smouldering objects can easily catch fire again when the wind picks up,” says Stoch.

Difficult terrain

Several fires also broke out in the Free State. By Monday, Johann Breytenbach, manager of the Free State umbrella fire protection association, reported that a large fire in the mountains near Clarens was still not under control.

Firefighting teams were also busy with large fires south of Bethlehem and fires north of Kroonstad, said Breytenbach. Their work was complicated by strong winds, and where fires moved into the mountainous areas of the southeast Free State, it became difficult to extinguish them.

“There is very limited vehicle access to these areas. Therefore, we have to send in hand crews who can extinguish the fires,” he said.

In Mpumalanga, members of Working on Fire-Kishugu assisted farmers and communities with 26 fires. More than 300 firefighters from places such as Kaapsehoop, Ermelo, Mayflower, Injaka FSP, Diepdrift, Dullstroom and Lydenburg helped to fight these fires. They were assisted by aeroplanes and helicopters from Kishungu Aviation and other owners.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the severe weather also contributed to runaway fires with winds of up to 65 km/h. Working on Fire and Kishungu helped extinguish 19 fires in places such as uMtshezi, Kokstad, Bergville, Nkandla, Ulundi, Winterton, eShowe, Vryheid, Royal Natal, Underberg, Kwagubeshe and Nkonisa.

African Farming also received reports of severe fires at Indwe in the Eastern Cape, where some farms were destroyed.

Get involved

Linton Rensburg of Working on Fire called on people to immediately report any signs of fires or unattended fires to their nearest authorities.

Stoch says veld and climate conditions this year could lead to a difficult fire season and that farmers and fire protection associations should keep their equipment ready and stay alert.

He is concerned that state institutions such as national and provincial parks, Eskom, and the departments of water and sanitation and rural development and land reform are not involved with fire protection associations.

“Where fires start on land managed by these institutions and departments, neighbouring farmers pay the price for their negligence. They need to get involved and be part of the solution.”

Stoch says that over the weekend in North West, businessmen, communal and commercial farmers, politicians, North-West University academics, students and even schoolchildren voluntarily assisted fire crews. Some helped extinguish fires, while others brought food and water for those fighting the fires.

It is not yet clear how many hectares of veld burned, but by Monday there were reports of 87 sheep that burned to death in North West.

The fires started in different ways in different places. In the Gariep area, a secretary bird flew into a power line in the strong wind. It was electrocuted and caught fire before falling into the grass, says Breytenbach.

In the Eastern Cape, a fire reportedly started when the strong wind caused power lines to touch, creating a short circuit that set the veld on fire.

One of the fires near Potchefstroom started when a spark from a farm workers’ fire blew into the veld.

Stoch called on all farmers to make firebreaks this week and said they might have to do it with scrapers or by hand because the wind could make it too dangerous to conduct controlled burns.

“Where we have proper firebreaks of at least 6 m, well-trained fire crews can backburn to where fires break out, even in difficult conditions like these.”

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