‘Big fires’ in quick succession in Free State


Although the occurrence of wildfires in the Free State currently still falls within the limits of a normal fire season regarding the overall area affected, the high-impact fires experienced in a very short period of time are “extraordinary”, says Johann Savage Breytenbach, commander of the overhead fire protection association (FSUFPA).

In total, around 273,411 ha of pasture were destroyed in the province between 1 May and 26 August in an estimated 4,422 fires.

The most recent fire this past weekend wreaked havoc once again and towns such as Smithfield, Steynsrus, Clarens, Senekal and Ventersburg are affected.

According to Breytenbach, the normal quota of hectares that burn down has already been reached within a very short time. “And we expect more hectares to burn in the coming months.”

The high impact fires can be attributed to the large amount of combustible material available. The weather conditions – high temperatures, low humidity and strong wind – also create the ideal conditions for fires to spread quickly.

“Last year’s fire season was not as intense as this year’s. It was a light fire season with between 250,000 and 300,000 ha of field affected.

“This is the normal pattern for a fire season in the Free State.”

The province’s fire season usually spans about six months. It normally starts in May and peaks anytime from mid-July to September. Depending on the conditions, the fires could last until November or even Christmas.

Last year’s fire season lasted only five months.

According to Breytenbach, this year’s fire load is high due to the unusually high rainfall seasons in the past three years. Last year the province also experienced a wet and damp winter.

“Moreover, the province also received early rain – already in September – which ensured sufficient greening of the field and the build-up of large quantities of fuel.

“It’s three years of building up masses of combustible material available to catch fire, especially with hot and windy weather conditions.”

According to Breytenbach, not all farmers were prepared for the intensity of this year’s fires.

“People sometimes underestimate the fires and are not always prepared for them. Some think it will not happen to them and have not already introduced the necessary risk management.

“The answer is to be proactive. Farmers must make sure they have strategic lines in place and have fire lanes – which are wide enough.”

Breytenbach says 90% of fires can also be attributed to some form of carelessness.

“Someone who throws out ashes, throws a cigarette butt into the field or a homeless person who sets fire on the shoulder of the road and the field catches fire. In this way, a fire can even start from a car’s exhaust pipe making a spark and setting the field on fire.

“People don’t realize how easily a fine fuel can cause a fire.”

Arson – with the aim of causing intentional property damage – can also sometimes play a role.

Fires where intentional damage to property is the motive can be divided into the following categories:

  • The fire was started intentionally or out of revenge after a
  • Miscreants who intentionally set a field on fire.
  • Fires set to commit fraud.
  • There may also be an element of crime involved, where cattle thieves, for example, set the field on fire as part of their modus operandi.

Lightning can sometimes also play a role, especially in the run-up to the rainy season.

Breytenbach says it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact cause of a fire and in cases where a criminal element is involved, the help of forensic investigators is sometimes called in at great cost.

Animals suffer

Meanwhile, the Animal Protection Society (SPBA) in Bloemfontein has been working non-stop in the province for the past two weeks to try to save as many animals as possible in areas where wildfires have wreaked havoc.

According to Reinet Meyer, senior inspector at the Bloemfontein SPCA, the organization had to dispose of seven horses, 12 cattle and nine sheep on Monday after several fires broke out in the Thaba Nchu, Verkeerdevlei and Excelsior area this past weekend.

“We have teams on the ground throughout. This disaster took its toll on our inspectors. They are tired and worn out. They work long hours and have had to witness endless suffering for the past two weeks,” says Meyer.

Last week, the SPCA together with the SPCA on Virginia also had to put down 160 sheep after wildfires in the Soutpan and Brandfort district. Two turtles burned to death and the SPCA in Bloemfontein took another 12 turtles to their branch for treatment.

‘State is not doing enough’

The DA is concerned that local municipalities are not doing enough to prepare for the fire season or respond to fires.

Roy Jankielsohn, DA leader in the Free State, highlights the following concerns:

  • Many fires start on municipal property and quickly spread to surrounding farms due to the lack of adequate precautions, such as fire escapes.
  • Many municipalities do not have sufficient firefighting equipment or trained personnel to deal with fires within towns, much less in rural areas where landowners have the same responsibility as other landowners.
  • Most municipalities, government departments and entities in the Free State are not even members of fire protection associations, as all landowners are required to be.

“Our farmers and rural communities need more assistance from local governments to combat the annual spate of wildfires. Farmers are expected to pay land taxes while receiving very little from their local governments in return. This tax has become a source of additional money in municipalities that are subjected to gross mismanagement, fraud and corruption,” says Jankielsohn.

“Communities, which are responsible for growing food for a growing urban population, are subjected to additional costs related to disasters such as wildfires and crime with insufficient support from the government.

“They cannot be regarded as cash cows for the local government’s excesses.

“The national government must outline what services our farmers receive from local governments from this additional land tax paid to local municipalities. The provincial government also has a responsibility to serve our farmers and their employees.

“The government can help mitigate the financial burdens for the agricultural sector with support in fire prevention and disaster relief immediately after the fires. Disaster funds must be sufficient and available immediately after fires when feed and other assistance is needed to sustain the remaining animals on affected farms.”