14 September 2017

South Africa: Fire Ravages Eastern Cape Farmlands, Mountains

Dry and windy conditions have seen runaway fires that started on Sunday, September 10, in the Lady Grey area and spread south over the Witteberg Mountain toward Barkly East, leaving a wake of destruction behind it.

The fires have destroyed thousands of hectares of grazing land and killed numerous livestock and wild game. Barkly East is about 165km northeast of Queenstown.

In a statement from the Barkly East Fire Protection Association, two fronts of the fires have been contained, but are not safe yet.

One on the west side of the R58 between Lady Grey and Barkly East and another to the east, which is on Avoca Peak, the second highest mountain in the Eastern Cape. The two fronts are about 30km apart.

"The fires continue to flare up and this requires constant monitoring. Most flare ups are due to roots burning underground or dung that has been blown by the wind," said fire protection officer for Barkly East, Piet Steyn.

"The winter season has been exceptionally dry and so the veld is susceptible to burning due to low humidity.

"The area is very mountainous which makes it very difficult to fight as the fire has been spreading down various valleys and creating numerous fire fronts. Strong winds have flamed the fire and roads and streams have provided no boundary," said Steyn.

Community support

The fires have destroyed over 40 000ha of land across at least 24 farms, of which half have had all their grazing lands destroyed, although the farm buildings have been spared.

The Barkly East Fire Protection Association estimate the economic loss at around R6.4m, with the figure expected to rise as damages are still being assessed.

"Stock losses are substantial and figures are still being verified. Wild life losses cannot be verified however many carcasses have been seen," said Steyn.

"The livelihoods of approximately 600 people have been affected by the fires. No lives have been lost but four non-life-threatening firefighting injuries have occurred so far."

Steyn commended the community, who had come out in numbers to support the fire-fighting efforts, including some 40 farmers and 160 of their workers from the Barkly East Fire Protection Association, as well as neighbouring farmers and their staff, the Joe Gqabi District Municipality Fire Services, three ground crews (Lady Grey, Tsomo and Ugie) from Working on Fire and the Eastern Cape Fire Protection Association.

"Those fighting the fires have worked around the clock since Sunday," he said.

AgriEC has also assisted with sponsoring a spotter aeroplane and the Joe Gqabi District Municipality has assisted with funding helicopter support.

"The helicopter from Ugie Working on Fire base has been assisting to ferry people up the mountains however due to gale force winds [on Wednesday, September 13], the helicopter was grounded due to safety precautions."

Steyn said water bombing had not been feasible, as there was insufficient water available due to the current severe drought.

Public donations of food and refreshments to the fire fighters have been on going. Other donations of animal feed can be provided via Jannie van Zyl at OVK Barkly East (082 926 5798).

Source: News24

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