As summer approaches, the risk of wildfires is increasing. This is especially true on the Agulhas Plain, where we’ve had a very dry year.

Wildfires pose a major challenge for the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area (NWSMA).

In fact, since January, rainfall figures captured by members are the lowest in decades, and for some members – on record. Rising temperatures are also reason for concern as a result of a changing climate. And wildfires are all the more dangerous here given the threat of invasive alien plants.

That’s why it’s important to take action before fire season starts on 1 December.

This Fire Prevention Month, the NWSMA will be doing all we can to keep our landscapes and infrastructure as safe as we can from wildfires.

According to Eugéne Hahndiek, Conservation Manager: Game and Veld Management at the NWSMA, “Wildfires are unpredictable – and we never know what will happen during a fire season. All we can do is ensure we’ve prepared ourselves and the land as much as possible.”

That’s why throughout the year we follow various steps to keep the risk of wildfire to a minimum:

Ecological controlled burns

The NWSMA consists of vast tracts of Critically Endangered and Endangered fynbos. However in fynbos, fire is essential to facilitate the continued functioning of the ecosystem and the evolution of the plants there. That’s why fire prevention goes hand in hand with fire management.

Besides promoting ecosystem function, strategic burns also minimise the risks of uncontrolled wildfire. They reduce potential fire fuel load. And if a wildfire breaks out, it would not be able to sustain itself for as long, and it would be easier to manage and control.

Eugéne says, “Controlled burns in our mountain and lowland fynbos are conducted at intervals between 15 and 20, while Renosterveld is burned at 7 to 12-year intervals. Our Limestone fynbos is a bit more unusual in that its burn interval is much longer at 30 years. It’s best to burn vegetation late summer and into autumn.”

It’s vital to plan the prescribed burn well, since a patch mosaic of burnt and un-burnt areas should be created in order to maintain different veld ages across the ecosystems represented on the NWSMA.

Alien clearing and vegetation management

But just as fynbos needs to burn because it’s a fire-driven ecosystem, most invasive alien plants in fynbos are also fire driven and therefore burn well too – usually much hotter and more frequently than fynbos.

That’s why we work to coordinate our controlled burn efforts with alien clearing efforts.

To do that, the NWSMA is developing an Integrated Fire and Alien Vegetation Management Plan. This plan will prioritise fire and alien vegetation management interventions in a way that limits negative impacts on nature. It also reduces the risks to human safety and infrastructure from uncontrolled wildfire.

Eugéne adds, “By clearing certain areas of invasive plants, we can remove a load of combustible material, and reduce the intensity and spread of wildfires. It’s the ideal fire management tool.”

In turn, fire management can help in our effort against invasive species. During a strategically planned burn in mid-2022, around 105 hectares of Elim Ferricrete Fynbos was set alight. This area hadn’t seen fire for more than 20 years, and was covered in invasive plants. Afterwards, our clearing teams removed mature invasive trees that didn’t die during the fire, as well as invasive seedlings that were coming up.

Carefully planned firebreaks

Firebreaks are strips of open space in vegetation that can help prevent spread of fire. More importantly, they provide fire-fighters access to wildfires to try and extinguish them. With controlled burns, these breaks help us limit the fire to the section we intend to burn.

According to the Greater Overberg Fire Protection Association standards, firebreaks should be prepared and maintained in a way that doesn’t damage the environment. That’s why existing management roads and tracks are used where possible.

On the NWSMA, our teams plan and cut firebreaks around the relevant boundaries before carrying out each ecological burn. We also conduct pre-fire season equipment audits and develop maps to designate veld age and burn history on a yearly basis. This helps us to identify high-risk areas and plan ahead for fire season.

Eugéne says, “We never know what the fire season will bring. It’s always a worry and we work hard to be ready. Then we have to remain vigilant during the season, to react as quickly as we can to any threats. And hope for the best come April next year, when the threat is over.”