Summary of Simon Pooley’s article, Cape Times, 6 March 2015
Dr Pooley is the author of “Burning Table Mountain: an environmental history of fire on the Cape Peninsula”(UCT Press, 2015)
‘Fires,’ Simon writes, ‘are by nature sensational news ... nowhere more so than on the Cape Peninsula, where a national park protecting fynbos which must burn every 10 to 20 years is bordered by the country’s parliamentary capital city, which must not.’
Simon points out that whereas fynbos has been here for millennia, and been burning for just as long, after 1652 fire threatened the structures and farms of the European colonizers. As the town and then the city grew, ‘Fire incidence increased steadily and the intervals between the many small fires decreased.’ The introduction of alien species to stabilise driftsands – all of them themselves fire-adapted species from Mediterranean climates – increased the difficulty of fire control.
State forestry was disbanded by PW Botha’s government after 1986, and with it went a great deal of expertise on fire management. At the same time for over fifty years there had been a sustained anti-fire campaign in the Peninsula, epitomised by the famous “Bokkie says ...” posters, which are still in use. Despite the scientific breakthroughs of the 1980s, when the importance of fire for fynbos was recognised, this knowledge does not seem to have permeated very far outside scientific and conservation circles, and public perception of fires as simply destructive remains.
Simon ends: ‘Let’s not despair for the veld or the fynbos animals. Let’s allow the competent authorities to manage fire sensibly on our beloved peninsula. We cannot eradicate fire as we did the Cape’s lions; to do so would impoverish the peninsula’s astonishing bio-diversity. Let’s strive to retain the wildness of fire within the bounds of the TMNP and ensure that we share the responsibility of living with fire equitably.’
I’d like to add these points to Simon’s article:
1. The one I have already made, that nowhere were the authorities able to stop the fire in the fynbos itself.
2. Whether the fire was deliberately set or caused by human carelessness is irrelevant in the end, because on Wednesday, while the fire was still raging on several fronts, lightning started a fire at Cape Point. The wind switched to a strong south-easter and the fire was only contained because it moved into an area of younger veld [a recent controlled burn]. Now imagine the Peninsula 365 years ago, clothed in 15 year old fynbos without any roads or houses. The same bolt of lightning on 4th March 1650, in the same weather conditions, would have burned the entire Peninsula, all the way to Table Mountain. If ever any more evidence was needed that fire is a natural phenomenon in fynbos, this was it.
3. We now know from every scrap of evidence that we have, from the climate, the geography, the history and the biology of the plants and animals themselves, that fire is a natural part of the fynbos cycle. It has been so for hundreds of millennia and will continue to be so for countless millennia to come. It’s wrong to say that it might burn, or it needs to burn, it’s only correct to say that it WILL burn. There is NOTHING short of uprooting every scrap of fynbos that we can do to stop that. That said, we need a vigorous campaign to try to get this fundamental into the heads of our population – especially the decision makers!
4. And because of 3. above, we need to spread this message, too: that just as you would not build a completely non-earthquake-proof house in San Francisco, you should never build a fire-prone house anywhere near fynbos. You can’t predict the next earthquake: it might not even be in your lifetime. You can predict the next fire: the same area that burned last week will all be burned again at some time during the years 2025 to 2035, and if your thatched house with a wooden fence and gutters full of pine-needles is anywhere near the fynbos edge, chances are high that it will burn down!
– Kaartman, March 7 2015