Drier 2019 sees sharp increase in runaway fires

2019-07-04 15:56
KwaZulu-Natal Working on Fire firefighters help with fire breaks at a farm. PHOTO: working on fire

KwaZulu-Natal Working on Fire firefighters help with fire breaks at a farm. PHOTO: working on fire

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This year’s dry season has seen a dramatic increase in runaway veld and forest fires, with 63 fires reported in KwaZulu-Natal for June this year compared to 45 last year.

Working on Fire (WoF) teams across the province have had to deal with more veld and forest fires this year “due to prolonged drought and extremely dry conditions over large parts of the province”.

However, the University of KwaZulu-Natal Agrometeorolgy’s Dr Alistair Clulow said there were a few factors potentially related to the increase in fires this season. He said runaway fires were often started by people, whether it be arson or accidental.

He added that the province often had Berg winds in winter and that weather conditions this year are much drier than in previous years.

Our Berg winds are hot, dry northerly winds blowing from the interior towards the coastal areas and, coupled with the dry conditions in the province, are the perfect recipe for the rapid spread of fires.

Clulow said another factor to consider is the gradual influence of climate change. He said more energy was being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere by greenhouse gases, causing adverse weather conditions like high wind speeds to form.

He said he had recently looked at research papers which showed that increased wind speeds can have many negative effects on our environment. “When it is a really windy day, you find your washing dries a lot quicker than if it weren’t windy. Increased wind speeds cause evaporation to occur faster, especially if it is also a hot day.

“Climate change includes more than just temperature increases but it is very difficult to predict how wind speeds or solar radiation, for example, may change into the future.

“We are already seeing statistically significant changes in our weather station data at some of our long-term monitoring sites across the country.”

KZN WoF spokesperson Nompilo Zondi said firefighters had to extinguish 63 fires in June alone, which burned a total of 1 033,4 hectares across the province. She said their teams were working with partners based at nature reserves, local municipalities, forestry plantations, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Fire Protection Association landowners.

KZN WoF general manager Bongani Nhlabathi said the province has been receiving more frequent fire call-outs every week due to the high Fire Danger Index (FDI). “This year, we expect more fires ... It is important that all South Africans act responsibly and refrain from throwing burning matches or cigarette butts into dry grass, or leaving braziers or candles unattended,” said Nhlabathi.

He said WoF assists communities, farmers and landowners with fire suppression, and also deployed staff where needed to help local firefighters and disaster management teams to extinguish blazes.

“It is imperative landowners request a permit before conducting fire breaks as runaway fire may occur due to a change of the FDI.”

The whole province is on high alert with over 700 firefighters on standby over the week and weekend.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  fire outbreak

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