Fire Sparks Conservation Movement in South Africa

Leon Marshall
for National Geographic News
November 2, 2001

For South Africans, something extraordinary has sprung from the devastation left by wild fires that swept the Cape Peninsula's scenic Table Mountain chain last year.

In a society still suffering from deep divisions along racial, social, and economic lines, white and black, rich and poor, private and public sector institutions have joined forces under the banner of the Ukuvuka Operation Firestop program. The key objective of the Ukuvuka campaign is to combat the alien plant invasion that has made the Cape's wildfires progressively more dangerous.

The January 2000 fire burned more than 23,500 acres (8,370 hectares) of mountain parkland. It could have been worse; a change in wind direction would have threatened the quaint coastal towns and the Cape Floral Kingdom that make the region an international tourist destination. The floral park, one of six in the world, is home to 8,600 plant species, of which about 70 percent can be found only in South Africa.

"It could have been the most costly fire in the history of the country," said Guy Preston, chairman of the Ukuvuka steering committee.

Battling Alien Infestation

The mountain chain's dominant natural vegetation is known as fynbos, an Afrikaans word which means "fine bush" and denotes the region's rich variety of small shrubs and heath-like bushes. But fynbos is gradually succumbing to the alien vegetation infesting the region. Two of the most invasive plants—hakea, which comes from Australia, and pines brought in from Europe— are "born to burn," said Brian van Wilgen, divisional fellow of the environment division of South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

"The hakea and pines increase the weight of plant material—and therefore fuel—by up to ten times that of native vegetation, substantially increasing the intensity of fires," said van Wilgen.

The infestation by alien plants fosters a vicious cycle.

"The intensity of the fire kills the indigenous seeds while stimulating germination of the invading vegetation's seeds," said van Wilgen. "It also changes the chemical properties of the soil, causing a water-repellent layer which contributes to the flooding and mudslides increasingly scarring the mountain."

The pines contribute to the flooding, he said, because they shade out the fynbos which would normally start sprouting soon after a fire, ensuring that the soil is well-covered with a green mat by the time the winter rains come.

Further aggravating the fire hazard has been the depletion by people of the indigenous trees that once filled the ravines. These trees have a natural resistance to fire and used to form natural firebreaks, preventing runaway blazes of the kind that have been increasingly occurring.

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