Knysna fires were waiting to happen
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”