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Fire, Devastating Beauty or Destructive Tool?

Blazing fires, soaring heat. Light in the dark, yet there lies danger in the very same enticing light. Fire is a ‘natural resource manager’ that can be both a boon or bring forth a trail of destruction. For eons humans have used fire, but also feared it.

In the winter months, sitting in front of a heath with a blazing fire can warm you right up after a cold day. As many of us will surely attest to even now, putting more wood on the fire to stoke it and keep it burning. But we best not forget that fire is a force of nature to be reckoned with.

For many of us, using fire to cook or ‘braai’ is a daily occurrence and for some it forms part of a past time and cultural traditions. As South Africans we do love our ‘braais’ (we even have a National Braai Day). But unfortunately, as helpful as this particular resource can be, it can also be as destructive, if not more so.

Every year thousands of hectares of agricultural land and property are destroyed by wildfires (some intentional, some unintentional). These fires occur either by natural means (such as lightning), accidental (power cables that snap) or even by arson. A prime example of which is the fires that rocked the western Free State last year where pastures, livestock and property were lost.

From fire breaks, to firefighters and firefighting gear, farmers have been fighting fire for years. But what does it entail? What should farmers do and know? What is the fine print that we are missing?

When winter sets in, farmers have additional responsibilities in the form of making fire breaks through and around their properties. From servicing firefighters to making sure that the rest of the gear are still suitable for a season’s use.

Very few, if any farmers have not experienced firsthand how it is to try and stop a runaway fire. The heat in your face, hands burning from warm tools being used (even when wearing gloves), warm smoke being inhaled. Soot and sweat mixing with dust to form a layer of dirt on your skin. For hours on end, running and driving after fires to put them out, with strong winds pushing the fire forward. To save not just their livelihoods but also to prevent both human and animal lives being lost.

During winter, fears that plague farmers include seeing smoke rising during the day or even waking up at night to see orange and red dotting the horizon. Sometimes farmers will check through the night to see if there might be a fire they missed when they checked earlier.

Those who own and inhabit farms (and even small holdings) are legally required to make preparations for fires. As well as have and know how to use certain, working, pieces of equipment.

According to the National Veld and Forest Fire Act No. 101 of 1998, there are several requirements that have to be adhered to. Some of these include:

  • Making fire breaks alongside your neighbor, on both sides, that are both long enough as well as wide enough to reasonably prevent the spread of a fire;

  • Fire breaks do not have to be burnt, they can also be tilled or be treated chemically (soil erosion is not permitted);

  • Workers need to wear the relevant safety gear;

  • The required tools and equipment to put out the fire are required (and should be in working order);

  • You have to do everything you can possibly do to put the fire out (one cannot allow the fire to spread whilst making no attempt to stop it);

  • You have to notify neighbors about the fire as soon as possible.

The Act goes further to describe the benefit of being a member of a firefighting association. Though not a requirement, there are a few benefits in being part of these associations. Firefighting associations are found in every area and local farmers form part of these associations. Most farmers’ associations are able to assist their members in joining the local firefighting associations (putting members in contact with the right people). Once joined, remember that there is a yearly membership fee that needs to stay up to date in order to remain a member.

Benefits of being part of a firefighting association include the assistance from the association during runaway fires with equipment that is available, legal backing if a fire did spread from your property and it is a benefit in regards to your insurance as well (in regards to premiums).

If you have yet to look into insurance for the spread of fire, it would be wise to do so. These types of cases can become quite costly as they run across the span of years (these are not quick solution cases when a dispute is lodged).

Things to keep in mind for the winter (fire season):

  • Ensure firefighting equipment is serviced and in working condition;

  • Look into insurance for the spread of fire;

  • Do not throw out hot or burning coals into an area where a fire can start;

  • Check on your current status with your local firefighting association;

  • Make your fire breaks in time (31 July unless further permits issued);

  • Make sure your firefighter is loaded and that you have fuel on hand.

Yet fire is not all bad. Fire is also used to control and manage certain types of pastures. Depending on the type of natural grass, some might actually flourish if fire management is practiced responsibly. If you are considering following this route, be sure to get in contact with someone who knows what will work for the natural flora in your area and will know if it will benefit or damage the veldt.

Burning old pastures when the first rain for the new season has fallen, will (depending on area, type of grass and animals farmed with) be green far sooner than other pastures. This means animals like sheep and goats will have green grass much sooner. But this depends greatly on region and rainfall. On the highveld of Mpumalanga and even in KwaZulu Natal, this practice will rarely be used. Whereas in Limpopo, many farmers will even say they barely see any fires as it is.

Fire is also used to clear out crops or in some cases to open up space where new crops are to be planted. This helps clear out the undesirable material in the specific area.

When you are thinking about burning a camp or even when you are struggling with a runaway fire, try to remember and help the birds and animals who live there. There are many species who are on the brink of extinction that would surely benefit from being remembered.

Fire can be destructive when it is out of control, destroying everything in its path. But fire can also help and cut down time or even help nature restore itself.

The key is knowing what you have to work with and how you can use it (fire) to your advantage. What works for one, will not always work for the other.

Article by: Cornelia Vermaak

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