The wildfire puzzle of Knysna
The Knysna and Plettenberg Bay fires of 2017 are a landmark incident in the history of wildfire in South Africa. If we don’t want to experience similar disasters in our future we need this incident to be transformative with an outcome of real change and collaboration in the approach of how we view and manage wildfire risk reduction and how, collectively, we approach dealing with this risk.
We live in a fire-driven ecosystem where the occurrence of wildfire is inevitable. Wildfire suppression is only a small component of a much larger and more comprehensive strategy that is required to prevent disasters in the wildland urban interface (WUI). Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are not dissimilar to many other existing communities in the urban and rural landscape that have the very real potential for a similar type of wildfire disaster to occur.
The simple analogy of a puzzle can be used to explain the current approach to wildfires. Imagine a puzzle made up of 10 pieces, which can only fit together when placed in a specific order from piece 1 to piece 10. Our current approach to solving this puzzle is hampered by us having become solely focused on pieces 10, 9 and 8. Because of our focus on these pieces, the final pieces from 1 to 7 seem to have been forgotten.
TOO FEW PIECES
Pieces 10, 9 and 8 very simplistically represent suppression services, limited fuel-reduction strategies and limited wildfire planning. Our current perception is that if we can just fit these three pieces together we have it solved. In reality, like the puzzle, we are only 30% ready for wildfire and as a result there are major gaps and fundamentals in risk reduction missing.
If you analyse fire suppression efforts and the budget spent on operations during the most destructive phase of the recent fires, and the resultant damage that occurred, it can be argued that these efforts were mostly unsuccessful – not from a lack of effort and dedication shown by fire services, but rather due to extreme fire behaviour and a rate of spread that rendered the fire uncontrollable. Like when a river is in major flood, there is simply no stopping the surging water and the same can be said for a wildfire.
Where there is continuous dry vegetation, and the fire is fanned by a strong wind it can reach an intensity and severity that make suppression impossible. So if it is not always possible for fire suppression to be effective, what more can be done to prevent these types of disasters?
NEW PLAN NEEDED
New role players to be brought to the table must be the homeowners, who need to reduce the vulnerability of their homes to ignition. This, however, cannot be expected to happen in a void. There needs to be a strategic plan put in place and implemented by land management agencies, fire services, local government, homeowners and the insurance industry. If this does not happen and we continue only to rely and primarily focus on suppression activities, and limited wildland fuel treatments, fire disasters like Knysna and Plettenberg Bay will continue to occur.
A home’s characteristics in relation to its immediate surroundings principally determine home ignition potential during extreme wildfires. Only focusing on wildland vegetation management without consideration and mitigation of home ignition vulnerability is exposing homes to severe risk.
Our primary strategy must be the creation of fire-resilient communities and the understanding of wildfire risk that goes with this. If we get this strategy right we can then manage the natural environment in a more efficient manner, in tune with its natural life cycle. Prescribed fuel reduction burning and selectively allowing wildfires to burn when conditions are favourable would be such strategy, to keep fuel loads manageable as well as reduce the continuity of fuels over large areas.
This decision and task would be made easier and safer if we were more confident about the ability of homes to resist ignition. If we can implement these types of strategies along with many other strategic interventions we can enhance the safety and effectiveness of operations and the managing of incidents.
We simply have to work towards being in a position where we can safely defend property or evacuate the area knowing that properties will be safe or face very limited damage.
An appropriate application of a wildfire risk management strategy needs to be holistic and consider the functional relationships between extreme-weather wildfires, landscape conditions, and home ignition/destruction.
In response to the recent wildfires in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, the Western Cape disaster management fire and rescue services have requested Vulcan Wildfire Management to conduct a strategic analysis of the incident in order to provide constructive recommendations on how we can move forward from this incident to put in place proactive measures, to ensure we can build more resilient communities.
Vulcan Wildfire Management is hoping that representatives from all the key role players can come together and work on a strategy to create wildfire-resilient communities.
* Info: www.vulcanwildfire.co.za / www. vulcantraining.co.za, Twitter/@VulcanWildfire, Facebook/Vulcan Wildfire Management
The Knysna Heights area with a view towards the Heads after the fires.