Firefighting as Shaping an Ecological Outlook

Being a wildland firefighter means that we need to be versed in multiple areas of study, from meteorologists, botanists, historians, and geographers, from endurance athletes to relative fire scientists.

A jack-of-all-trades in the truest sense of the phrase. 

Having been exposed to ember storms, escaped from flaming fronts, and enjoyed the eye-watering introduction to the fog-inducing effects of smoke, a particular moment on the line awakened me to the actual force that nature can be when ‘it’ decides to go virulent. That in actual reality we mere humans are powerless in the face of it all. 

The experience I’m going to share occurred when I was on a crew, activated on the 24th of February, 2021, when I was in my second season of firefighting. This shift went beyond the ‘regular 12 hours’ which is the norm for localised calls in my organisation. As a volunteer unit based in Cape Town, we don’t often get calls that go beyond 24 hours, unless we are much further afield. Typically, for fires here in the Cape Peninsula, we conduct firefighting operations through direct attack. Parallel attack methods and burn operations occur further afield where there is minimal human population. There are however exceptions to this. 

The fire we were combating would ultimately turn 16,000 hectares (roughly 40,000 acres) of veld, farms, and forest into a moonscape. For us here in the Cape, this is a massive fire. We don’t have huge tracts of natural environment like in the United States, Canada, etc., with our endemic environment being confined almost purely to mountainous reserves. The division we were assigned to was involved with combating an approaching fire front before it reached a number of farms and housing within the Franschhoek Valley by conducting the longest burn operation I had yet been exposed to. About two hours into the burn, a fairly large fire-whirl formed, which threatened to overrun us as well as the homestead we were protecting. The unpredictability of this phenomenon meant that the direction in which it moved was seemingly at random thereby jeopardising the crew (e.g., air differential etc. creates an impact). Thankfully, it dissipated 20m (60 ft) away from us, but the noise, sounding like a screaming jet engine during take-off, and destruction it produced was still immense. At the same time, while this was all ongoing, swallows in the area began to inundate the smoke-filled atmosphere around us, feeding on insects which were escaping the inferno.

This paradox of life amidst turmoil, and contradictions of fire producing new life, is truly what brought to life the meaning of ‘good fire’ to me.

This paradox inspired me to further my goal of learning about the origins of fire here in the Cape region of Southern Africa. 

The seeming paradox of the Cape Floral Kingdom is that it needs to burn to regenerate and grow for biodiversity and strength. This is one of the six global floral regions and the smallest (the others being the Antarctic, Australasian, Boreal, Neotropic, and Palaeotropic). It contains 20% of Africa’s plant species and 3% of the global count, which is incredible considering that the region covers less than 90,000km2 (34,750 mi2) – it is also the only Kingdom to fall within a single country. In the Cape Floral Kingdom, 80% is composed of fynbos and renosterveld, with about 80% of those 8500+ species being endemic (6000+ species), occurring nowhere else in the world. This serves to illustrate the rich diversity within which life occurs and is dependent on extreme conditions to flourish. 

I only learnt these aspects about the Cape’s endemic biomes in research I have undertaken since joining the fire family. The fact that the Cape Floral Kingdom is comprised of multiple smaller biomes, each with species often being found in only those few small square km (or square metres in some instances) means that this landscape is truly unique. This diversity and ecological richness is the land upon which we walk, where hopefully we can become stewards of the land. This inquiry requires a more historical aspect to be considered. 

The Cape was on the primary trade route to the east for spices and other commodities during the colonial era. This changed when the Dutch trading company Vereenigde Nederlandsche Geoctroyeerde Oostindische Compagnie, or Dutch East India Company, decided to set up a permanent trading station to supply and replenish passing ship traffic. This act altered the course of history. The indigenous First Peoples—namely the pastoral Khoe and the hunter-gatherer San, who lived and stewarded the land—were subjugated, exterminated, and became indentured to work the land (slaves in all but name; they weren’t explicitly enslaved but were in essence treated as such). Prior to that, fire—like many indigenous peoples across the globe utilized—was used as a tool to manage the land. Here in the Cape, passing ships had noted in their logbooks the mountainsides alight and the glow of wildfires at night, which brought indelibly the use of indigenous fire into the historical record here within the Southern Cape. 

The Khoi peoples set fires as they had during throughout their history as people of transhumance. This being the cyclical nature of their way of life – moving seasonally to new pastures and sheltering from the harsh Cape winters. This act of burning kept a healthy ecosystem alive, enabled new plant growth to sustain their livestock, and kept the land manageable by preventing extreme fire conditions for the most part. When the Dutch created their trading station, they put an end to this practice through force. They built fortifications and barriers to protect their introduction of alien monoculture crops, and purposefully altered the First People’s way of life, which ultimately had a huge impact upon the local ecology. Whereas previously the local biomes on the plains had been of a grassy nature, this altered to a more shrub/woody like nature. Fynbos, when it gets too old, becomes heavily wooded and no longer reproduces as it should to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

The vegetation growth densified where there was no agriculture and meant that when wildfires occurred, they were far more intense and ultimately caused more degradation.

This colonial mindset of fire being inherently ‘bad,’ and the outlook of containment at all costs, pervaded the following centuries. Like Northern America, and the ‘Smokey Bear’ campaign, here in South Africa we got the ‘Crying Bokkie’ (a generic depiction of a local antelope species). This has reinforced a massive negative mind-set amongst the general population, especially when it comes to ecological burns which have gradually begun to take place more frequently over the last couple decades, as the scientific echelons and biodiversity units of the Cape government have learnt that it is, in fact, a necessity for healthy ecosystems and in the management of wildfire. However, among the general public, and media organisations which continue this cycle further, wildfire is viewed with negativity and something that must be prevented at all costs. When ecological burns get out of control, as they do from time-to-time, the public outcry negates any possible good. For example, one such burn I was on last year, where even though it ran within a nature reserve (which was ultimately ‘due’ to burn), the public outcry was blown out of proportion. The build-up of vegetation in this area meant the burn spread rapidly, coupled with both the existing wind conditions (which picked up) and the weather system the fire created itself.

When no burns are conducted, vegetation builds up and wildfires then become far more extreme and degradative than they need to be (preaching to the choir here, I can imagine). This heat depletes the natural seed banks, alien vegetation takes hold, grows quicker and then burns hotter than local species, continuing this cycle of actual ecological destruction. 

How can this narrative change? The fire which occurred in April 2021 that burned down the University of Cape Town’s African Studies Library and destroyed a few other historically significant buildings, awakened the public’s eye to what mismanagement of local ecological systems can lead to. It is unfortunate that such hellscapes are pretty much the only thing which ignites public discourse into such matters.

In quieter years, it often feels like the general public forgets that there are even firefighters out there. It takes huge blankets of smoke smothering the city to awaken this discourse. 

It’s all these aspects which I’m trying to frame – that when ecology and endemic biomes are managed and stewarded instead of suppressed—that our job as firefighters becomes a lot easier. We then become viewed as stewards rather than as the thin yellow line between a flaming front and property and the livelihood of those at risk.

As firefighters, we need to look beyond being just a tool to dig line or tackle flame. But rather, like those First Nations peoples of centuries ago, as a means to ensure ecological sustainability and growth. We need to look to the past to learn what the future can be.

Fire sustains multiple life forms on different scales, from micro to the macro. We are privileged to witness this firsthand. We see things that most never will, let alone what most can never dream of. Our voice can be a tool to awaken dialogue and discourse into the benefits of ‘good fire’. This is happening through events such as the WTREX (Women in Fire Training Exchange) programmes and others like it. However, this is far from over and is only just beginning. 

Main Ecological References:

Mucina, L. and Rutherford, M.C. (2011) The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. 2nd ed. Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Pooley, S.P. (2015) Burning Table Mountain: An Environmental History of Fire on the Cape Peninsula. Claremont: UCT Press.