Western Cape prepares for summer blazes

Western Cape firefighting teams displayed their operational readiness at the launch of the 2017 wildlife preparedness programme at Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West on Friday December 1.

The Western Cape is preparing for the threat of potentially catastrophic wildfires this summer.

The 2017/18 fire season is expected to be one of the worst in recent memory with hot, dry and windy conditions expected across the province which is already impacted by a severe drought.

Local Government and Environmental Affairs MEC Anton Bredell says about 9 000 wildfires were reported in the Western Cape between April 2016 and March 2017, many of them wreaking havoc and straining resources. “We are concerned about this season and we implore the public to work with us to reduce fire risk and report fires speedily when they are observed. Please do not throw out cigarette butts or make open fires outside when the wind is blowing.”

In preparation for the season ahead, the Western Cape government and its fire partners have ramped up resources in order to respond to fires in the shortest possible time.

This season the provincial disaster management centre will co-ordinate 24 aircraft in key locations.

These include ten Cessna spotter aircraft, ten Bell UH-1 helicopters and four fixed wing Airtractor 802 water bombers. Some 36 runways have been prepared for these aircraft in strategic areas so that they can be deployed rapidly to where veld and vegetation have caught alight.

The airborne resources will be complemented by 1 550 municipal firefighters across the province, bolstered by about 1 020 seasonal firefighters (municipal and other organisations). There are also 31 Working on Fire (WoF) teams with about 830 members in the Western Cape, and an additional 500 members in other provinces who can be called on if needed.

In addition, two Specialised Interagency Wildland Firefighting crews have been contracted to respond to major wildfires in the province. These specially trained teams are rapidly deployed directly to the fire-line, enabling an initial attack on major wildfires.

The season was officially kicked off with a simulation of operational readiness in Somerset West on Friday at Vergelegen Wine Estate.

The estate, which hosted the event, has reduced its vulnerability to fire by clearing dense alien vegetation from over 2 000 hectares, enabling indigenous vegetation to flourish and reducing fire risk.

The programme has generated over 230 jobs for previously unemployed and untrained people and boosted water reserves, flora and fauna on the estate.

Mr Bredell says the province’s response plans to wildfires is designed around the principle of responding rapidly to a wildfire in its early stages with the maximum number of aircraft and ground teams. “By gaining control within the first hour, the possibility of a major incident is minimised.”

Critical partners in the Western Cape wildfire programme include WoF, the City of Cape Town’s Fire Service, district municipality fire services, SANParks, CapeNature, volunteer firefighters and fire protection associations.

“Without the cooperation of all these entities, wildfires would be an even greater challenge,” said Mr Bredell.

He encourages the public to create “defensible spaces” around their homes by clearing all flammable vegetation within 10 metres of the dwellings. Dead leaves, small trees and bush should be cut to leave widely spaced, larger trees. Tree branches within five metres of a home should be trimmed and removed, as well as dead branches overhanging a building.

“We can all make a difference in reducing human-caused fired during this season of high fire danger. Remember, fire is everyone’s fight.”

Mr Bredell also urged the public not to distribute unverified reports of arson and fire but to report any concerns to the nearest police station. The emergency toll-free number to dial in the event of a fire, free from any cellphone, is 112.

When reporting fires, the public can also contact the closest local district municipality

City of Cape Town: 021 480 7700 from a cellphone

Overberg: 028 425 1690

West Coast: 022 433 8700

Eden: 044 805 5071

Central Karoo: 023 414 2603

Cape Winelands: 021 887 4446.