- Plantation fires
Every year plantation fires are getting worse
In the recent past, South Africa and Swaziland have experienced frequent runaway plantation fires. During 2007, these fires were so severe that they were described as the worst in history, leaving over 20 people dead and many more injured. The homes and livelihoods of affected rural people were destroyed, and the timber industry lost plantations valued at over R5 billion. KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape, and Mpumalanga were all badly affected, and there were also bad fires in Swaziland, where the devastation added to the food insecurity and scarce water conditions that had resulted from the worst drought conditions experienced in 15 years.
It is seldom acknowledged that plantations themselves are one of the major causes of these fires, partly due to the excessive amounts of water they consume. In water-scarce countries like South Africa this has the effect of worsening the natural dryness during winter, and exacerbates droughts when they occur - and which are becoming more frequent due to climate change. As a result, surviving indigenous vegetation around timber plantations becomes tinder dry and more susceptible to fire. Because of the way in which timber plantations can alter the relationship between fire and the natural landscape, it becomes nearly impossible to control fires in extensive plantations.
The tendency of timber companies not to allow adequate firebelts through their plantations and to plant too close to forests, streams and wetlands only adds to the problem. Satellite images clearly show the lack of adequate buffers and firebreaks in most major plantations, and clearly this can only be because of the insatiable greed of the companies concerned.
Most timber plantations have been established in grasslands that are naturally adapted to fast-moving, light-burning fires that help to maintain their ecological condition. However, large plantations of notoriously flammable alien trees that when burning exude volatile oils, and these together with accumulated prunings, old stumps and other dried out vegetation, that when on fire release intense, direct heat, literally cook tree stems and the topsoil. Under these 'ideal' conditions, the damage caused by plantation fires is far greater, and they also contribute to global warming and climate change.
A plantation fire waiting to happen at Jonkershoek in the Western Cape