Fires, fynbos and ‘fire stick’ farmers

Fighting fire
It was 11am when Dean Harrison’s team got the call.  They were working in Tokai, battling the huge Cape wildfire of March 2015 that had started in the mountains above Muizenberg and spread as far as Constantia and Chapman’s Peak. The team of ten brave souls had been at it for four days in a row, grinding out 12 hour shifts in the crucible of smoke and heat.

By the time the call came through from headquarters, they were exhausted. It’s a hellishly difficult labour of love. Dean Harrison and his team are all volunteers at Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), an organization that works alongside other civic organisations, SANParks’ dedicated fire crews, and the provincial and municipal firefighting units.

Most wildfires happen in summer, with temperatures already reaching 37˚ centigrade. The firefighters are in full protective gear, carrying heavy equipment, and having to hike hours up steep slopes just to get to the roaring inferno. Which is where the hard and dangerous work really begins.

But there’s a particular kind of strength that people get when they are working for a cause or purpose that transcends themselves as individuals. So when Dean was told to stop his team’s operation in Tokai and attend to a fire that had begun in Cape Point, there was no question of whether or not he make it. Only when.

Dean’s experience and instinct told him there was something strange about a fire starting in Cape Point. For days, the wind had been blowing hard south-east, sending any potential ashes away from Cape Point. So how could a fire spontaneously start in the western flank of the reserve?

The answer was something you don’t usually get around this time of year: lightning.

As unlikely as it sounds – in dry, sunny weather, with howling gale-force winds and not a cloud in sight – after almost two weeks of flames engulfing the entire Cape peninsula, the accumulated smoke acts like a conductor for the highly charged atmosphere, and freak lightning bolts become a distinct probability. A cruel twist of fate wrapped in the smoky cloak of physics.

Buy the time Dean and his team arrived, there were already a couple of SANParks teams on the scene, as well as two water tankers, and the choppers had also made a couple of drops. VWS

They rushed to the briefing area, where Clinton Dilgee, the Operations Section Chief and one of the founders of VWS, told Dean that his team would be approaching the blaze from the left flank.

As Dean led his team into the bush, Dilgee called out to him: “Hey Dean!”

Dean turned around. Dilgee said: “Let’s show these guys how we chase a head.”

Colin Dilgee was referring to the fact that firefighters approach the fire from its base, downwind, so ‘chasing the head’ means slowly working your way up towards the critical area (the flames).

The teams of volunteers are split into two functions: those at the front are armed with beaters, large rubber flaps that beat out the flames. They are followed by a group equipped with rake-hoes, which secure the coals and ashes that the beaters leave in their wake, to prevent flare ups.

For the rest of the day, Dean’s team laboured to contain the flames. The beaters at the top would regularly spool back so that no single person spent too long at the most dangerous zone closest to the flames. Smoke inhalation and exhaustion are permanent dangers in these situations. When Dean’s team had done about one and a half kilometres – a vast distance under the circumstances – the team behind them alerted them of a flare up. They went back to start all over again.

By the end of the day, light-headed and nauseous, the firefighters had got the blaze under control. Dean and his colleagues stumbled home into cold showers, and fell into bed. The following morning, Dean’s lungs ached almost as much as his arms and legs. He craved biltong and Energade. His body needed to replace the salt and electrolytes he had sweated out.

Dean’s phone pinged. There had been another flare up at Cape Point. Three times as big as the day before.

Dean did not hesitate to reply: “I’m on my way.”

Phoenix fynbos
Fynbos – the collective name given to the vast swaths of scrub and bushes that cover the coastal belt of the Western and Eastern Cape province – is described as “both fire-prone and fire dependent”. In other words, fynbos needs to burn.

The fire activates seed release mechanisms and survival techniques in some of the plants, enriches the arid soil and clears the space for some species to grow that may have been crowded out by other bigger or more prolific plants.

Fynbos adapted to fires during millions of years of natural blazes caused by lightning and sparks from falling boulders. The plants have evolved a number of interesting techniques to survive fires. Some plants developed seed storage cones that release the seeds after they burn. Others have thick bark which insulates them from fires, or roots and bulbs that are protected from the fires because they are underground, and then regrow.

In The Cape Town Book, Nechama Brodie writes: “In other plants, fire stimulates the germination of dormant seeds buried in the ground either by desiccating or rupturing their extremely hard outer coats, allowing water to enter. Incredibly, some species of fynbos… even respond to the chemicals released by plant-derived smoke, which stimulates seed germination.”

It is thought that some of the earliest humans to live in the Cape Peninsula deliberately set fire to the fynbos in order to increase its potential as food. According to Michael Fraser:

“It is recognized that the distribution of Middle Stone Age people, at least, was determined by the availability of Watsonia corms [a bulbous root of fynbos]. Burning of the vegetation was employed to stimulate the plants to sprout and flower. Watsonias develop an additional corm when they bloom, thus increasing the potential harvest for the ‘fire stick’ farmers.”

Wildfires
The ideal frequency of fires is every 15 years. Because fynbos is so fine, it does not burn at very high temperatures. However, alien invasive species – plants that have travelled here by ship like the Port Jackson or ones that were deliberately planted by gardeners – burn longer and more intensely than is natural and good for the fynbos, and the spread of the suburbs up and down the peninsula means that man-made fires are an increasing problem.

The Cape Peninsula is no stranger to fires. In 2001 a wildfire spread across 8000 hectares of the Peninsula, destroying 8 houses and causing R30 million worth of damage. On 1 March 2015, (the fire mentioned above) started in the mountains above Kalk Bay and spread until it had consumed 5000 hectares between False Bay, Noordhoek, Hout Bay and Constantia.

The last big fire in the Cape Point Reserve was in 1991. It is considered an accidental fire – probably caused by a careless tourist – and consumed about one third of the Reserve.

Prescribed burns in Cape Point
Prescribed burns – sometimes known as block burns, but never referred to as controlled fires any more (because the term invests too much semantic confidence for those who know about these things) – are an important event in the biosphere.

In the past two years there have been two prescribed burns at Cape Point: one behind the Klein Jagersberg building, and one near the main gate. Another prescribed burn was scheduled for 2016 but conditions were not right for it to happen. Needless to say, conditions need to be absolutely perfect for a prescribed burn to take place, and this is completely out of the hands of the authorities.

In addition to weather conditions, any prescribed burn plan needs to take into account alien species as much as it does the fynbos itself, because alien species burn so much hotter and longer. (This is also why removal of alien vegetation from fynbos is so important.)

The trick is to burn the fynbos slowly and thoroughly. This is tricky. It’s not often that one gets a mild southeaster, especially at Cape Point!

When it does occur, most of the park’s resources are deployed to guard the infrastructure at the Reserve. The entire operation should not take more that 24 hours.

The parks game rangers and staff are supplemented by firefighters and wardens overseen by the Incident Command Manager, who is based at Newlands.

The oldest fynbos on the Cape Peninsula
“One of the most interesting things about Cape Point,” says botanist Jasper Slingsby of the South African National Biodiversity Insititute, “is that because fires move in the direction of the wind, as you move south along the Cape Peninsula, fires decrease in frequency. And that means that some of the fynbos in Cape Point is the oldest fynbos in the entire Cape floral kingdom.”

To explain: the prevailing dry wind in the dry summer months is the South-easter – the famous Cape Doctor. Winds get their names according to the direction where they come from. So the Cape Doctor wind blows from the south-east, in a north-westerly direction. And because Cape Point is the southernmost tip of the Cape peninsula, this wind blows from its tip inland, up the coast. It will always push any fires up and away from Cape Point.

Ironically, then, the one thing that provides the biggest danger to fires in the Cape Peninsular – the howling south-east summer wind – is the thing that protects Cape Point from wildfires

So there are some bushes on the very tip of Cape Point that are practically immune to flames. And they are probably the only plants on the peninsula that have never been burned. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

You’ve read the information and stories, now head to Cape Point where you can:

  • See some of the oldest fynbos in the Cape Peninsula
  • Observe some of the newest fynbos on the Peninsula en route
  • If you happen to visit the Reserve anytime after the controlled burn and see the blackened landscape, do not despair! It’s natural.
  • Observe the shoots of the newer fynbos as it emerges from the ashes of the previously burned bushes.