Early heat waves indicate increased fire risk for Garden Route


Weather patterns ran amok worldwide in 2023 with extreme temperatures affecting large parts of Europe and the Americas, where record high temperatures were reached in many places. Communities were exposed to heat and drought waves that often lasted for days, limited outdoor activities and put a heavy toll on resources, says Cobus Meiring of the Garden Route Environmental Forum.

In Canada for example, but also in Tenerife, Greece and elsewhere where thousands had to be evacuated, high temperatures led to uncontrollable wildfires, and large parts of Alberta are still burning after some 15 million hectares have been destroyed. Several towns were evacuated and infrastructure was destroyed. South Africa was one of the countries that sent teams of firefighters to help where they could to bring the situation under control.

“The southern Cape experienced a very cold and wet winter, and the warm days experienced in August, which is usually a very cold month, brought relief in some respects. Unfortunately, the recent high temperatures in the southern Cape together with strong winds are synonymous with an increased risk of wildfire disasters, such as the extremely tragic Smutsville fire in Sedgefield. Almost forty informal houses were destroyed within a few hours, even with fire services on the scene.”

Meiring says hot and dry winds are relentless in the way moisture is extracted from the vegetation within a very short time. All it takes is a careless spark for a wildfire to burn out of control within an hour, if not controlled at the source as soon as possible. Hence the term “golden hour” used by firefighters to emphasize the importance of a quick response and the urgency to make sure a fire does not cross an indefensible fire line, as recently in the Free State and of course the Knysna and Plettenberg Bay fires.

“Although climate cycles such as El Niña and El Niño are difficult to accurately predict in terms of their impact, it can be safely said that the former is associated with wet seasons and the latter with dry periods with high temperatures, indicating that the southern Cape ‘ can expect a dry and hot summer, although the climate in the region is still in transition, as El Niño has not yet taken full effect.

“What we know from previous experience in the southern Cape is that we should rather be overly cautious and focus on limiting water consumption. Landowners must do their best to ensure that their firebreak and fire preparedness protocols and measures are in place, while we know that after an extremely wet winter the biomass will grow again aggressively and invade households and infrastructure.”