Knysna fires were wait­ing to hap­pen

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - NEWS - SHEREE BEGA

AN AR­TI­CLE writ­ten in 2009 by a team of sci­en­tists warned of the ex­treme na­ture of fires caused by the spread of alien plant species on the Gar­den Route that could rav­age the re­gion – and urged au­thor­i­ties to act.

The ar­ti­cle, “How no-man’s-land is now every­one’s prob­lem”, was “al­most prophetic in the con­cerns it raised re­gard­ing the po­ten­tial for ab­nor­mally in­tense fires to rav­age the area”, the En­dan­gered Wildlife Trust said this week.

The ex­treme na­ture of the Knysna fires and the ex­tent of the dam­age was ex­ac­er­bated by the ex­ten­sive and un­con­trolled spread of alien plant species, such as pine and wat­tle trees, in the re­gion, it said.

Seven peo­ple were killed in 22 fires, 10 000 peo­ple were evac­u­ated and over 4 000 peo­ple lost their homes.

The au­thors of the ar­ti­cle, pub­lished in Veld&Flora, Richard Cowl­ing, Brian van Wil­gen, Tineke Kraaij and Jonathan Brit­ton, pre­dicted “fires would rage with ab­nor­mal in­ten­sity, se­ri­ously threat­en­ing homes, crops, plan­ta­tions and peo­ple.

“The in­tense fires fu­elled by alien veg­e­ta­tion would have a far more dam­ag­ing im­pact on the soil than typ­i­cal fyn­bos fires would have, caus­ing ex­treme ero­sion.”

They en­vis­aged “a fu­ture in which res­i­dents and tourists alike are sub­ject to se­vere and chronic wa­ter ra­tioning as a re­sult of a fail­ure of moun­tain catch­ments to de­liver am­ple, clean wa­ter as they do today.

“In this pos­si­ble fu­ture, fires would rage with ab­nor­mal in­ten­sity. Tourist num­bers would dwin­dle, both be­cause of the dire wa­ter sit­u­a­tion and be­cause the unique fyn­bos would have largely dis­ap­peared un­der in­va­sive alien pines.

“The con­se­quences of no ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of the in­va­sion of the Gar­den Route’s moun­tain catch­ments for na­ture and for hu­mans are down­right scary. First, be­cause pines use up much more ground­wa­ter than fyn­bos, wa­ter yields could drop by be­tween 30% and 100%, depend­ing on an­nual rain­fall.

“Sec­ondly, pine­in­fested ar­eas car­ried a much higher fuel load than fyn­bos and sup­port fires of much greater in­ten­sity.

“Con­se­quently, in­evitable wild­fires pose a greater threat to hu­mans and their in­fra­struc­ture.”

The En­dan­gered Wildlife Trust pleaded for lo­cal gov­ern­ment, the pri­vate sec­tor, the pub­lic and com­mu­ni­ties to en­sure the re­moval of alien veg­e­ta­tion on the Gar­den Route was pri­ori­tised.

Mean­while, Auto & Gen­eral In­surance has set­tled all claims by cus­tomers who lost their be­long­ings in Knysna last week. It re­ceived 20% more fire-re­lated claims in one week than it did dur­ing the en­tire 2016.

“This is cer­tainly one of the most de­struc­tive dis­as­ters we’ve ever seen,” said spokesper­son Martin van Wyk.

The sci­en­tific ar­ti­cle was “al­most prophetic”

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