Nicky Schmidt of the community-environmental NPO Parkscape says the organisation is devastated by the catastrophic fires that raged across Devil’s Peak on Sunday 18 April and which have subsequently spread across the area above Vredehoek.
Schmidt points to the fire presentation hosted by Parkscape, with partners NCC Wildfires, the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association, SANBI and the Constantia Wine Route in October 2019. “We said then that the risk was significant. We live in a fire dependent biome that needs to burn every 10 to 15 years, in an era of unprecedented climate change, and in a city where our wildland interfaces – the national park – directly abuts dense urban interfaces. Without proper management – and education of the public – it is a recipe for disaster – exactly as we’re currently seeing.”
Schmidt further points to the repeated warnings seen across social media platforms about the risks arising from homeless people living in the Park and making campfires. “The sheer volume of reports from the public – many of which are referred as a direct concern to SANParks – points to the extent of the problem. And yet SANParks does nothing.”
“When you couple this with the fuel load in the Park and failure to deal with alien infestations,” and here Schmidt specifically references the slopes of Devil’s Peak which have been littered with tinderbox dry pine trunks and stumps for many years, “then the likelihood of disaster is multiplied – as we see now.”
While Schmidt has nothing but praise for the firefighting crews and SANParks fire chief, Philip Prins, she acknowledges that Prins works under impossible circumstances. “The public think that Prins makes fire decisions in a vacuum, but he is entirely dependent on other staff in the Park doing their jobs properly, in order to enable to do his job.” Schmidt says given the good working relationship Parkscape has with Prins, they are well aware of the challenges he faces. “He knows about the vagrants living in the Park and the risk they pose, but it doesn’t fall into his portfolio to remove them or address the problems.
He’s also well aware of the issue of fuel load, but he’s dependent on rangers to request stack or controlled burns. What this reveals,” says Schmidt, “is the dysfunctionality that exists within the management of TMNP.” She adds that this dysfunctionality leads to a mismanagement of the Park that puts the lives and properties of the citizens of Cape Town at unwarranted risk, a situation which has been aggravated by the repeated budget cuts made to the Park over the past ten years.
Parkscape has consulted on the fire with Prof Coert Geldenhuys of Stellenbosch University who has a special interest in fire flow patterns in the landscape from the perspective of natural forests surviving devastating fires in the fire-prone and fire-adapted Fynbos environment.
Geldenhuys echoes Schmidt saying, “The accumulating fuel loads in the natural, fire-prone environments within the urban environment is a major concern that needs urgent attention from the relevant responsible authorities (municipality and SANParks). The risks of accumulating fuel loads are aggravated by invader plants that grow taller than Fynbos, increasing the chances of fire spotting, also into the urban environment. Fire ignition by vagrants during such extreme hot and dry conditions caused by the North-westerly Bergwinds and the South-easter, is a recipe for disaster. The responsibility lies with the relevant authorities to reduce fuel loads regularly, and to unsure that places where vagrants live, if they are not evicted, are safe during such catastrophic events. The authorities need to collaborate with willing, active and concerned citizen groups to ensure safety in the wildland-urban interface.”
Professor Eugene Moll, Parkscape’s Environmental Consultant says, “The fire in the vicinity of Rhodes Memorial was a catastrophe waiting to happen. TMNP have proved time and again that they are unable to manage flammable vegetation that abuts a city.” Moll also, however, says, “The City of Cape Town and residents must shoulder some of this blame too; they are all people without a real ecological comprehension of living in a region where fire is primary ecological driver.”
Moll reiterates what Schmidt has said about Prins. “This catastrophe cannot be blamed on someone like Philip Prins who fully understands the essence of control burning for hazard reduction, but is prevented from doing his job by those higher up in the pecking-order. It is time we had a proper and thorough review of how the TMNP is managed, not by some government appointed lackies but by independent people who fully comprehend the critical importance of their task. If we bumble on again, we will have another similar disaster in another year or more. Surely it is time to sort this situation out once and for all?”
Agreeing with Moll, Schmidt says it is long overdue that the failure to manage Table Mountain National Park properly is brought into sharp focus. “It’s just not working and we cannot risk it continuing to not work – too much is at stake. We need to see a completely different model of managing the Park. She points to a report Parkscape wrote for the City in 2007. “We noted then that there were serious issues with the management strategies of Table Mountain National Park – the risk of those strategies now stares us in the face – and yet still we sit with the same old management. It clearly doesn’t work and we need, with the City of Cape Town, to be looking at alternatives – a privatisation or Special Purpose Vehicle model.”
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