Living with Fire – It’s our New Reality

Parkscape Forest

In the wake of the devastating Devil’s Peak fire in Cape Town in April this year, community-environmental NPO Parkscape raises the alarm to urban edge home-owners, encouraging them to become fire safe as we head into summer’s high fire season.

Parkscape says that while it has been pleased to see a number of fuel reduction burns conducted by private landowners and SANParks over the winter months, the extent of invasive infestations and increased clearing activities in Table Mountain National Park means considerable slash and biomass fuel remain in situ and will become tinder dry as summer progresses.  The organisation further says it has been alerted by experts that 2021/2022 could see a devastating wildfire rip through the Park, impacting urban areas in ways not seen before.

Parkscape’s Chair, Nicky Schmidt, says the fire situation in Cape Town is far from simple. “We’re dealing with multiple intersecting realities.  We live in an increasingly dense urban environment that abuts and spills into our nature areas. We live in a biome that is dependent on fire for its survival yet for years we’ve practised fire suppression. Meanwhile climate change is becoming more extreme – our summers are hotter and drier – and we’re dealing with the challenge of invasives. We just have to look at California, Spain, Australia, Portugal and Turkey to know that the one thing we can be sure of is that it’s not a case of whether a wildfire will happen but when and where. And the critical question to urban edge residents is whether they are prepared for wildfires.”

There has to be a paradigm shift, says Schmidt. “In the past we relied on fire services to keep us safe, and nature conservationists to preserve nature.  It’s more complex now and as some of the fire agencies say, fire is everyone’s fight.  We’re all in this together and to find the balance everyone needs to work together – fire agencies, conservationists, insurers, and land- and home-owners – and that means, as uncomfortable as it is, homeowners need to change their mind-set about fire.”

Schmidt says that there’s a common misperception that firefighters from the various services can be completely depended on by homeowners to extinguish all fires and that everything will be okay. But that’s only partially correct. She says that urban edge residents, and even those further afield, need to start thinking about protecting their homes against fire in the same way they protect their homes and loved ones from crime.  “The public who live on or near the urban edge – the wildland urban interface – need to not only become aware of their risks but to start taking action to reduce those risks,” says Schmidt.

Parkscape says ensuring gutters are kept clear, having a functioning fire hose, clearing gardens of dried out vegetation, using hard landscaping around the house, ensuring trees aren’t within two meters of the house, and keeping gas bottles and fire wood supplies away from the house will all help to prevent losing a home to fire.

“It’s what experts call creating defensible space,” says Schmidt. “Your home doesn’t need to go up in flames during a wildfire.  Just as you can take steps to reduce your risk from crime, so you can and need to do the same to reduce your risk from wildfire.”

Schmidt notes that most people think fire moves towards the urban edge in a wall of flame – but fire also spots.  In strong wind conditions (and fire can create its own wind) embers can carry up to five kilometres.  She says one just has to consider the way the Devil’s Peak fire spotted from the mountain, through UCT and down to the Liesbeeck Parkway. “You don’t have to live right on the urban edge to be at risk.” 

Schmidt also notes that home owners need to become aware of their legal and insurance risks and liabilities – if a fire spreads from your home to that of your neighbour’s, you carry liability.

To help urban edge homeowners understand their risks and what they can do to reduce those risks, Parkscape is hosting a fire awareness webinar on 21 October at 18h00.  Communities and individual homeowners are encouraged to attend. The webinar will be MC’d by comedian Nik Rabinowitz, and two lucky draws of Constantia wines will be on offer.  The event is free of charge and is presented by Parkscape and its partners as a public service.  

Parkscape webinar poster
Parkscape fire webinar poster

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