Photos: Thousands of hectares are burning again in Free State

Henry

Wildfires again destroyed between 20,000 and 30,000 ha in the Free State on Sunday and at least one structure in the Clarens area was engulfed by the flames.

Several parts of the province suffered from extreme fire weather on Sunday with high temperatures, low humidity and winds of up to 60 km/h. Towns such as Smithfield, Steynsrus, Clarens, Senekal and Ventersburg were particularly badly affected.

“The Ventersburg fire was the largest in terms of damaged area and affected a distance of more than 30 km,” said Johann Savage Breytenbach, commander of the Federal Fire Protection Association (FSUFPA).

Wildfires spread to the N5 between Senekal and Winburg in the late afternoon after they spread through the Willem Pretorius nature reserve around 15:00,” says Breytenbach.

The Ventersburg fire has been largely contained, but is still raging in the reserve because fire crews were forced to withdraw for the night due to the dangerous conditions.

According to Breytenbach, today’s (Monday) weather conditions are expected to pose the same dangers.

He says firefighting operations have continued until late and extensive damage to agricultural and other infrastructure is a given, while stock and wildlife losses are highly likely.

“Informal reports of loss of residential property in the Clarens area have been received, but it is too early to expect official estimates of damage and losses.”

The total area affected by Sunday’s wildfire incidents is estimated at a minimum of between 20,000 and 30,000 ha.

FSUFPA is monitoring the situation and will request the activation of the Provincial Wildfire Response Task Force to assist when needed while teams from Working on Fire are on standby to provide suppression support in affected areas if needed.

A total of 4,299 wildfire incidents that destroyed more than 260,000 ha raged in the Free State between May and September.

According to Breytenbach, the high presence of fuel loads that have accumulated over the past three years provides ample combustible material for the development of fast-moving, high-intensity wildfires that are difficult to contain even in calmer conditions.

“Unfortunately, it is our expectation that wildfire incidents will increase in accordance with warnings already issued by FSUFPA in March 2023.”

He says that although there has been a drastic increase in wildfire incidents since the end of July, the province is currently still within the limits of a normal fire season in terms of total area affected.

“We appeal to the public to be aware of the extreme fire risk that will prevail for the duration of the spring and ask land users to take responsibility for managing the wildfire risk on the land under their control,” says Breytenbach.