Saturday, March 7, 2015

The message in the flames


The Constantiaberg, Silvermine, Muizenberg and Clovelly burning. Photo: John Henderson

There are many kinds of stories emerging from the Cape Town fire that began on March 1st on the fynbos-covered mountain above Muizenberg, and which was still burning in places, six days after it started.

Stories about good will and selfless actions, about the phenomenon of social media playing a vital role in civilian-based disaster relief and organization. About firefighters refusing to give up. About who fights the fires and how little some of them are paid, about helicopter pilots* water-bombing around the clock. About missing cats, rescued squirrels and a sudden abundance of snakes. About fear, and loss. And about fynbos.

Many Capetonians view this fire as a catastrophe - the utter destruction of a loved environment: The Mountain in the middle of the city. And much has been lost. But to people who understand the fynbos biome, this fire is something else.

I asked my friend Don if I may reproduce here what I read first on his Facebook page. Don Kirkwood is an ecologist who lives in Noordhoek with Rosie Stanway, a botanist. They were in the thick of the fire.

                                         Monkey Valley, Noordhoek. Photo: Marilyn Coldrey

Their part of the mountain - really a series of mountains stretching from the city centre down to the pointed tail of the peninsula - is now black and covered in ash. Don's perspective of the fire is that of a resident who experienced it first hand, but also of someone who understands this fire, at this time, within the context of the space where he lives.

Context is be the genius key to circumstance. He writes:

"We love this mountain but it seems that at times like this we forget that fynbos is not just flammable: it is entirely dependent on fire for existence.

"And it needs a particular fire regime to retain all of the species that make it so special. Not only must it burn at least once every 10 to 30 years or so, but it needs to burn at the right time of year. That time is now. The end of summer, when it's hot and dry and windy and absolutely terrifying.

Cape Point burning. Photo: Theo Lane

"Fynbos plants can be tough as hell, but their reproduction is tenuous in the extreme. Many plants are serotinous - the proteas hold their entire future, their seed bank, in cones and flower heads on the plant. These are released only after fire. Burn too frequently and the plants won't be old enough to even have seed. Burn too seldom, and the plants get too old to make seed - the next generation rots and withers before it can be set free to grow. Burn too early in summer and rodents and bugs will eat everything before the winter growing season. Burn into winter and seedlings can't establish before the summer drought, never mind the cold, patchy burns that are no good for healthy fynbos.

    Proteas on Silvermine. Photo: Duncan Robson, The Network

"February and March, when the veld is achingly dry, brittle tinder. This is the right time for fynbos to burn. Hot and clean. Hot enough even to stimulate germination of the kreupelhout seeds buried deep in symbiotic ant burrows.

"And hot enough to make thatch roofs burst into flame 100m from the fire front. I'm so sorry for those that have lost property. I really hope no one has been hurt. But I'm happy that some really old, desperate-for-fire fynbos got a proper burn.

"Let us be reminded that the human consequences of these "devastating fires" are a result of our short memories and disregard for how and where we place our houses in relation to a naturally fire-prone habitat.

       Protea seeds being released. Photo: Duncan Robson, The Network

"This is exacerbated by legislation and management policies aimed to protect us by reducing fire risk in the short and medium term (by putting out even natural ignition events, and especially by doing limited areas of control burns, and only at at safer, cooler times), ultimately leading to a buildup of massive, unmanageable flammable biomass loads in certain areas.

                                                Firefighters at work. Photo: Gabriela Sissons

"I really hope that this reminder of the power of nature doesn't result in a further backlash against natural fire, but results in us thinking more carefully about how to live with it, and be prepared for those inevitable times when it runs far beyond what any firefighting resource could contain."

* On March 8th one of the Working For Fire pilots, Willem "Bees" Marais, died after a forced landing at Cape Point. Condolences to his family.

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