Stellenbosch University: Climate change, land use cause increase in wildland fires

What do Helderberg Mountain, Kleinmond, Table Mountain, Betty’s Bay and Knysna and George have in common? They are just some of the areas that have been devasted by fires in the last few years. And if the increase in wildland fires in urban areas is anything to go by, they may again be engulfed in flames in the future.

According to Dr Natalia Flores-Quiroz from the Fire Research Unit in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU), there have been more wildland fires in the last few years. She explored this issue in a recent Stellenbosch Forum Lecture. This lecture, the fourth in the series for 2022, was themed ‘Climate change and the need to learn to live with fire – A South African case study’.

Since 1990, the Stellenbosch Forum lecture series has been providing regular opportunities to SU staff and students as well as members of the public to learn more about the world-class research conducted at the University. Presented in an accessible and understandable way, these lectures offer both academics and non-academics a platform for critical debate across disciplinary boundaries.

Flores-Quiroz said climate change and land use are two main reasons why we have seen more wildland fires.

“On the one hand, climate change produces higher temperatures, droughts, low humidity and strong winds. All these factors dry the vegetation and make it easy to ignite. This will increase the rate at which fire spread. These factors also make the fire seasons last for longer.

“On the other hand, the land use is also changing. Nowadays more people are living in the wild and certain areas are used for plantation, and we have more alien species. Plantation usually burns faster and with more intensity than indigenous forest.”

She added that there are several similarities between fires from different countries. These include multiple casualties, fatalities or people injured, thousands of people to be evacuated, large areas affected, and severe economic losses associated with these fires.

Flores-Quiroz used the Knysna fires in 2017 as an example to show how evacuations, critical infrastructure, communication and spot fires are some of the main wildland fire challenges.

“Evacuations come with very short notice and very limited information. Many communities don’t have the infrastructure to evacuate safely. Evacuations also involve pets and livestock which makes the situation much more complicated.

“Critical infrastructure and services could be out of operation for months or even years impacting the community for a long time.

“Communications are critical during wildfires. Often there is no communication between different organisations/fire brigades or there isn’t one fire management authority, which can create confusion.

“Spot fires, which are embers carried by winds out the area of the fire into vegetation that hasn’t been burnt yet, can have a huge impact on the rate at which a fire spreads,” she added.

Flores-Quiroz concluded her presentation by saying that there are measures we can take to minimise the impact of wildland fires in urban areas.

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