Counting the cost of Gordon’s Bay fire

An example of fire defensible space around a home, as promoted by FireWise.

When a wildland fire raged across the mountainside above Gordon’s Bay on November 7 and 8, the City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service (CTFRS) responded with a concerted assault in an attempt to contain the blaze as rapidly as possible.

The fire danger index – the nexus of temperature, humidity and windspeed – was between 60 and 62, so a prompt response was essential.

CTFRS deployed 30 firefighting vehicles and over 400 firefighters over the two days, assisted by crews from Working on Fire and Volunteer Wildfire Services to contain the fire, and reported that five structures – one business and four private homes – were destroyed in the conflagration, which Bolander reported on in our Wednesday November 15 edition (“Holding the line”).

Sweetwaters Road resident, Wayne Hermanus, contacted Bolander by email the following week to dispute the reported number of structures destroyed, asserting that six homes in his area, in addition to the four reported by CTFRS, were destroyed, and that CTFRS had not responded to calls for help from people whose homes were under threat by the fire.

According to Mr Hermanus, the Sweetwaters Road area had “been left in the hands” of a local security company. He further asserted that CTFRS had not conducted a scouting exercise in the area to determine the threat level, to inform the deployment of resources.

Bolander put Mr Hermanus’ assertions to CTFRS spokesperson, Theo Layne, who responded as follows on Thursday:

“We did receive a number of calls from the Sweetwaters Road area via the call centre, and those requests were relayed to the planning group at Incident Command. Our standard practice is to deploy two vehicles per structure, but because we were thinly stretched that day, we reduced it to one vehicle.

“We also deploy the nearest vehicle to the location of the new callout that is available, in the interests of getting resources on scene as rapidly as possible, and we also rely on intelligence from deployed resources on the scene to determine threat level and required resources. Our vehicle tracking system clearly shows that five firefighting vehicles responded to calls from the Sweetwaters Road area that day, but they all reported great difficulty finding the locations of structures under threat because of near zero visibility from smoke.”

Mr Layne added that one of the vehicles had driven up onto Sir Lowry’s Pass in the hope the crew could locate the burning structures from above, but the smoke was impenetrable.

“I was actually in the Sweetwaters Road area that day (Tuesday November 7), and the visibility was near zero,” Mr Layne said, adding that it is also very difficult to locate structures under threat, that are scattered randomly in the wildland urban interface (WUI) – the area where wildland veld and urban development intersect. “It makes for a discontiguous WUI which is difficult to protect,” Mr Layne said. “It should be noted that while some structures were destroyed in the Sweetwaters Road area, others in close proximity survived.”

This raises the matter of fire defensible space around structures on the WUI, something which is not a legislated requirement in South Africa. The Veld and Forest Fire Act makes provision for the establishment and administration of fire protection associations (FPA), and it places legal obligations on FPA members with regard to fire prevention and suppression.

It also places legal obligations on landowners in general to maintain firebreaks, to have access to equipped and trained firefighting resources and to contain any fire that my start or cross an owner’s land, but that legislation is largely aimed at rural landowners. It makes no provision for enforcing the maintenance of fire defensible space around homes on the WUI.

As the incidence of wildland fires increases, the need for legislation to compel property owners on the WUI and also in urban environments, to make their properties fire defensible, becomes imperative.

Bolander spoke to Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) Fire Manager, Phillip Prins, on Thursday.

“Where residential developments on the WUI are exposed to extreme wildfire conditions and homeowners have not paid adequate attention to their defensible space – their home and its immediate surroundings – built structures and people are endangered. Because responsibility for preventing such fires falls largely on the property owner, I strongly urge residents living on the urban edge to address conditions within their defensible space,” Mr Prins said, adding “Although we do need legislation to enforce fire defensibility of homes on the WUI, we also need a concerted education and awareness campaign to roll out at the same time.”

Fire defensibility is enforced in California by state law, which in 2005 set the minimum defensible space around a dwelling at 100 feet (30m). Such fire defensible space dramatically increases the likelihood that a house will survive a wildfire, and it also provides for safety of firefighters when protecting structures during a wildland fire.

FireWise, an Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) community based initiative, focuses among other things, on the promotion of fire defensible space in communities located on the WUI, through awareness and education activities, but until fire defensibility is legally mandated, fire defensibility is at the property owner’s discretion.

Bolander spoke to environmental affairs MEC, Anton Bredell, about the possibility of fire defensible space legislation, at a recent veld fire preparedness briefing at Vergelegen Wine Estate in Somerset West.

Mr Bredell noted that a good deal of current legislation like the Veld and Forest Fire Act, the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, the alien invasive species regulations promulgated in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, the Western Cape Land Use Planning Act, and at local government level, the Municipal Planning By Law, all contribute to fire prevention, but adds that there is no legislation in place to enforce fire defensibility.

Citing the California example raised by Bolander, Mr Bredell said: “The Californian example of responding to the fire danger by creating defensible space, “hardening” the home, and fire-safe landscaping the garden, are desirable examples of what can be achieved and can definitely be supported and advocated, particularly at a municipal planning level. These provide site specific parameters that can be included in zoning schemes – as overlays perhaps in the fire-prone wildland urban interface – or as site specific conditions of approval.”

TMNP’s Mr Prins feels that such legislation is essential, because it will contribute to making the shift from fire suppression, to fire prevention and fire protection.

“If you look at current budgets, the bulk of money is devoted to fire suppression, rather than fire prevention and fire protection. We need to change that, and mandating fire defensibility will help a great deal.”

Norman McFarlane is a firefighter with Volunteer Wildfire Services, Jonkershoek Firebase.