Climate change fuels fires

May 2, 2017

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Climate change portends bigger wildfires that aremore difficult to control. As a result, wildfire management is becoming more important in order to reduce the damage to people, the economy and the environment.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Fynbos Biome, the world’s smallest floral kingdom (of six), but also the richest per unit of area. Over 9,000 species of flowering plants occur in this tiny area at the southwestern tip of South Africa. The tiny biome covers about 46,000 km2 (about the size of Bhutan or Estonia), yet contains almost one fifth of all known African plant species.

The region is a global biodiversity hotspot, internationally acknowledged for its unique floral diversity. It is also an important economic hub, rich in agricultural production and an unparalleled tourism destination. Importantly, Fynbos is a fire-adapted ecosystem and many plants have seeds which can only germinate after a fire. Other plants wait till after a fire to flower - their brightly coloured petals rising up like a phoenixes through the ashes of what might first appear to be a devastated landscape. But the frequency and intensity of uncontrolled wildfires – exacerbated by climate change - risk exceeding the biome’s recovery capacity and causing damages on the economy and people’s lives.

Responding to fire

Effectively co-ordinated sustained wildfire management to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires due to climate change is imperative. In the past, wildfire management was heavily dependent on fire suppression. But as factors such as an increased wildland-urban interface and greater pressure on natural resources have become increasingly significant, more advanced fire management, integrating weather prediction and modelling tools, has come to the fore.

Integrated Fire Management (IFM) has been defined as a series of actions that include: fire awareness and prevention, risk mapping, hazard identification, prescribed burning, resource sharing and co-ordination with fire detection, fire suppression and fire damage rehabilitation.

IFM is critical to realize a balanced, workable, and sustainable approach to manage wildfires with minimum harm to people and the environment.

Managing Fires – Reduction, readiness, response and recovery

With funding provided by the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Special Climate Change Fund, the UNDP-supported "Fynbos Fire Project" is aimed at developing sustainable interventions to radically reform the approach to managing wildfires and to implement strategies to better cope with increasing wildfire risks and damages due to climate change.

This project has been implemented within the framework of the Working on Fire Program, a successful large-scale enterprise program of the Government of South Africa, which recruits young men and women and trains them to implement a range of IFM products and services which includes fire management planning, fire detection, prevention, suppression and community fire awareness.

Fire is a bad master, but a good servant

Integrated Fire Management practice promotes the beneficial use of fire. There is a general consensus now that the Fynbos Biome needs fire. Fire can be an agent of rebirth or an inferno of destruction. If the biome is burnt every seven to twenty years, aging plants are killed off, many kinds of seeds burst into life, and bulbs start to grow again.

The delicate equilibria of ecosystems mean that it’s not as simple as merely controlling wildfires. Different species of fynbos plants are favoured by fires of different frequencies and moreover, this can also lead to a mass germination of invasive alien plant seedlings. If the dexterity is not in place to deal with the follow-up clearing of these invasives, it can lead to massive additional clearing costs at a later stage, and many very negative ecosystem service impacts, such as water loss, biodiversity loss, an impact on the productivity of land and much more – ironically including the likelihood of worse fires in years to come.

Though the system itself is complex, there is agreement on a single underlying principle: fires must be managed to preserve the Fynbos Biome.

Only you can prevent wildfires

An important aspect of the project was to increase the capacity of people in the landscape to deal with wildfires. Over 5,000 people were trained in a range of courses that encompassed important elements of IFM applicable to the Fynbos Biome, such as fire ecology, fire behaviour, assessing fire risk, the application of prescribed burning, and the likely impacts of climate change on fire management.

The project is currently supporting the ongoing professional and technical development of landowners and public institutions that are directly responsible for the planning, co-ordination, and implementation of IFM activities in the Fynbos Biome. Stakeholders have been sponsored to attend various courses covering IFM and Incident Command Systems. Many of these courses are focused on Fire Protection Association (FPA) members in order to incrementally improve their skills and competency levels to make decisions that will need to be made under conditions of climate change.

“I have been fortunate enough to attend various IFM-related training interventions funded by the UNDP-GEF Fynbos Fire Project and feel that all these courses gave me the knowledge and skills to assist where necessary during wildfires on the Cape Peninsula, and hopefully make a solid contribution in the suppression thereof while maintaining ecosystem integrity.” Says Riaan Fourie, Extension Officer of the Cape Peninsula FPA’s North Ward.

Firewise in FYNBOS

The project supports communities in living with wildfire and encourages neighbours to work together and take action now to prevent losses. By supporting firefighters, landowners, NGOs and local authorities to implement IFM practices and to anticipate the impacts of climate change on wildfires, the project ensures that development losses from wildfires will be minimized while this unique biome and floral kingdom serves as a reservoir of unique, beautiful, important species for the planet.

For more information on the project, please find the project profile at Fynbos Fire, Firewise SA, and Kishugu.

Footnotes: Story: Tessa Oliver, Andrea Egan, Akiko Yamamoto