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30 August 2011

Report: North West Veld Fires: 23 - 24 August 2011


Johan Steyn of Patriot Boerbok Stoet writes:

I have read a number of reports on various websites that SAWDIS has not received any information regarding the fires in the Northwest and Free State provinces on Tuesday 23 August. Below is some information regarding the fires.

I am a commercial farmer and area chief for Radio Callgroup 1 of Potchefstroom Disaster Management Volunteers and co-ordinated activities in the Potchefstroom/Ventersdorp/Welverdiend areas on this day when about 90000ha of grazing veld and farmland was totally destroyed by various fires.

The SAWS weather forecast for Tuesday 23 August was winds of about 19km/h in the morning increasing to 30km/h in the afternoon. Windguru's forecast (taken at the Boskop dam site at the DWAF hydrology station) forecast winds of 30km/h in the morning and 56km/h from about 11h00 gusting to 67km/h at times. By about 10h00 the wind was already strong, blowing significantly faster than the estimated 30km/h. At around 12h30 the first of the fire reports from Fochville came through and the N12 was closed to traffic shortly thereafter. Potchefstroom Disaster Management Volunteers, local FPA members and teams from WOF were already deployed in that area when the second report of a large fire in the area of the Klerkskraal dam came through, as well as urgent requests for assistance.

This fire was reported as being started by arsonists. With a northerly wind blowing strongly the fire spread very quickly and soon had jumped the N14 and was well on its way to Potchefstroom and surrounding areas. The wind, now blowing at an estimated 60km/h, caused oscillation of the lines on an 11Kva line near Rysmierbult which eventually touched and shorted, setting the veld alight in a second place. Additional resources from the Potchefstroom FPA and Potchefstroom Disaster Management Volunteers were activated. The SAPS mounted Unit as well as the SADF fire fighting unit, Potchefstroom Fire Brigade and the Rheinmetall Denel Munitions fire fighting units also scrambled to assist. At roughly the same time, about 3km from this second fire, a third fire started at a farm workers' compound due to negligence and rapidly flowed into the second fire. All three these fires had a very strong wind of about 60km/h behind them, they jumped firebreaks of up to 80m wide without slowing and the rocky terrain made vehicular access very difficult despite good organisation and radio communications among the fighters.

As all available resources scrambled to douse the flames, arsonists lit the veld in a fourth place further south near Katdoornbosch that required the diversion of resources to attend to this latest crisis. Significant concentration of resources and quick reaction times were all that prevented the fire from entering the Boskop Nature Reserve and causing significant damage and mortalities among the game.

The problem was exacerbated by the strong wind as areas where the fire was already doused were continually being blown to life, requiring cooling down teams to remain on site. This further diluted an already thinly stretched workforce.

By this stage (roughly 15h30) the 3 northerly fires had already merged and various fire lines about 12 - 15km long were being driven along very fast by the wind. Practically none of the firebreaks farmers had made in the preceding months even slowed the progress of the flames that raged up to 12m high at times and travelled faster than galloping horses. This later fact was borne out by the fact that many horse and donkeys were either burnt to death or severely burnt as a result of the rapid progress of the fire fronts. Even game like Blesbuck and others like warthog and duiker were caught in the open by the flames. The size and speed of the fire made it almost impossible to fight it and the high wind speeds made drawing backburns an almost impossible, and extremely risky, task.

At this stage I estimated that almost 200 people and a large variety of vehicles and farm bakkies with fire fighting sprays were fighting the fire. These included military Samil water bunkers, converted Buffel anti-landmine vehicles widely used by farmers as fire fighting vehicles due to their excellent go-anywhere ability, similarly converted Unimogs, tractors with high pressure bulk sprays, WOF teams with beaters and drip lighters, LandCruisers, and other vehicles like trucks with boom sprays and bulk water tanks converted by farmers for fire fighting.

At roughly 17h00 some of the farmers requested assistance to treat or shoot large numbers of their cattle that had been burnt to death or severely injured by the flames and the speed with which it had trapped them in the veld. Heart-rending scenes greeted us with small calves burnt literally to cinders, others trapped in the fences as they had tried to escape, other cattle were still alive but suffering terribly. An urgent call for assistance saw a number of farmers with hunting rifles, local vets,the SPCA and the SAPS assist in putting down the animals. In total some 700 cattle and calves and many horses and donkeys as well as game were burnt to death or had to be shot. One farmer alone lost over 500 animals. Other farmers had their entire farms of thousands of hectares burnt out completely. The good rains of the past season meant that the combustible material load was very high, resulting in a very hot fire. Damage to vegetation and other infrastructure was significant. The dolemite rocks of the area displayed signs of this with sizeable flaking and other signs of distress commonplace throughout the area.

The fire was eventually extinguished at about 23h30 but inner fires still burnt until well into the early hours of the morning. On the morning of Wednesday 24 August, additional teams were sent in to extinguish a fire still burning in the bed of the Wonderfontein spruit near Muiskraal.

Initial estimates of damage to grazing veld, crops, infrastructure, livestock, fodder reserves and buildings are in the region of R30 million and this is certain to rise as additional assessments are made. Longer term damage is excluded from these assessments at this stage. These include loss of production from cattle lost to the fire, tremendously reduced carrying capacity of natural veld grazing due to the intensity of the blaze, inability of some farmers to recover financially from the scope of the fire and their subsequent exit from the agricultural economy, trauma and other related aspects.

I have attached a few photos of the fires for possible inclusion. You are welcome to contact me should you require additional information or clarification of details.

(Click on images for larger view.)

SAWDIS: The SAWDIS want to thank Johan Steyn for this comprehensive and informative report. This is highly appreciated. I trust that the public now have a much better insight on how devastating veld fires can be and also the damage caused by such fires. The images received from Johan must be a stern reminder to all of us that fires kill, destroy and cause financial losses that runs into millions of rand for farmers, farm workers and land owners. Let's not forget the trauma, human tragedy and psychological effects. Finally: The SAWDIS has compassion with every farmer, farm worker, landowner effected recently by these devastating veld fires. The SAWDIS trust that Disaster Aid to farmers will soon be made available to all those effected.