The fire season for the 2020 summer rainfall area is upon us, and we need to learn from our past experiences to prepare for what is coming. Furthermore, we need to take changing factors into account when planning our fire prevention strategy, writes Jaap Steenkamp

Jaap Steenkamp, CEO of the SA Forestry Contractors Association. Image credit: GeorgeHerald

Jaap Steenkamp, CEO of the SA Forestry Contractors Association. Image credit: GeorgeHerald

There have been more fire incidents reported to the SA Forestry Contractors Association (SAFCA) in 2019 than the previous 20 years combined. This is a horrific statistic and we need to ask ourselves: what are we going to do? In this case, the ‘we’ includes growers and contractors.

The consequences of a fire history like this is simply money spent on fire-fighting, huge losses in terms of timber and the rising cost of operations and insurance cost. On top of this is also the danger in fighting fires and the risk of loss of life and equipment.

To begin with, we should look at possible reasons why this happened. We can cite climate change, inexperienced burning (meaning we don’t have the experience in forestry anymore to read the climatic conditions correctly), pressure to get burn work done, and – as one contractor put it – arson is a ‘speed dial’ to growers. “Growers are trying to be socially acceptable rather than to be legally correct. Arson remains a crime,” said the contractor.

His view is that as long as we do not treat arson as a crime, the ‘speed dial’ will be used.

A holistic approach to fire protection, involving all the main stakeholders, should be followed on sound guidelines. Every stakeholder should understand their specific role regarding fire protection and what is expected of them. It should be a friendly, but also zero tolerance environment. We all (growers, contractors and community alike) need to generate the rules and abide by the rules. It must be acknowledged that the grower will be the primary stakeholder, and that includes the primary responsibility for the process and abiding by the stakeholder agreement based on sound fire protection principles.

SAFCA has also received reports of brushwood being burned in KwaZulu-Natal during July, September and November of 2019 when the ban on burning was still in place. Incidents like these should never happen. Irresponsible burning may cause huge damage should the fire jump, with financial and legal implications for the grower. Irresponsible burning will also put the whole contractor Public Liability Scheme under pressure and will most certainly lead to an increase in premiums. We had a substantial Public Liability premium increase in 2019 and an increase of between 4% and 15% for 2020 depending on the risk profile of the contractor. It is still very good value for money, but we should protect the premium by acting in a responsible manner.

The contractors as a collective group should exercise the highest level of integrity regarding burning, and if they are of the opinion that burning should not take place, they should put their reasons in writing to the authorising entity. They should also at all times ensure that the burn was authorised from all entities from which authorisation is required and that they have a signed works order or equivalent instruction.

Growers and contractors must work together to mitigate the fire risk sooner rather than later. To do this we need to address the causes.

To address the issue of climate change as a factor, we can do one thing and that is to put a conservative interpretation on weather information, due to increased weather volatility. If conditions are becoming marginal, do not burn! Discuss and plan the day and the burning work at hand with the key stakeholders, and if you have even the slightest doubt about the safety of going ahead, consult somebody with good experience. It will certainly be worth your while.

We need to take care that burning work does not fall behind schedule! It is pretty much like plane crashes – the vast majority follow delays in departure! Falling behind the burning schedule promotes a culture of taking chances by burning when conditions are marginal, thus increasing the risks.

Arguably, one of the most serious causes of fire is arson. Arson is a crime and it should be treated as such. No exceptions.

Our forestry industry is well-equipped for fire-fighting. It is also good to see a shift towards lighter, quicker fire-fighting units supplied by bulk water tankers. This promotes quicker response times to fires, and we all know that the earlier we can attend to a fire the better –  obviously with maximum force!

Fire crews must understand the functioning of the fire tender that they are working with. Problems with fire equipment usually occur when shifts change and a new crew takes over. There are slight differences between the different fire tenders and only a small mistake may have a huge impact. This can be a very simple ‘mistake’ like opening or closing the wrong valve. To address this, training and a detailed hand-over process is crucial.

Here’s hoping that 2020 will be a kind fire season, and we urge all contractors to take the utmost care before embarking on any burning operations. Good cooperation and communication is a very good starting point for safe and sound burning operations.

Jaap Steenkamp is CEO of the SA Forestry Contractors Association.