by Richard Wadley
Every autumn, landowners are faced with the obligation, in terms of the relevant legislation (the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, No. 101, of 1998) to create or renew the firebreaks around their properties. For the record, this is what the law has to say on the subject:
Duty to prepare and maintain firebreaks
12. (1) Every owner on whose land a veld fire may start or burn, or from whose land it may spread, must prepare and maintain a firebreak on his / herside of the boundary between his / her land and any adjoining land.
Note, however, the following concession, which can be quite useful in cases where boundaries traverse inaccessible terrain:
(7) Owners of adjoining land may agree to position a common firebreak away from the boundary.
13. An owner who is obliged to prepare and maintain a firebreak must ensure that, with due regard to the weather, climate, terrain and vegetation of thearea –
(a) it is wide enough and long enough to have a reasonable chance of preventing a veld fire from spreading to or from neighbouring land;
(b) it does not cause soil erosion; and
(c) it is reasonably free of flammable material capable of carrying aveld fire across it.
Note that the Act does not say how wide a break should be. The Modimolle Fire Protection Association (FPA), which is Government’s authorised agent in our area, recommends a width of three metres in normal terrain, but less in mountainous terrain. In fact, we all know that even a 50 metre firebreak will not be wide enough to stop a determined fire backed by a strong wind. So, what’s the point?
Well, firstly, we need – for insurance purposes – to comply with the law. Secondly, and of more value perhaps, is that a firebreak, especially if it is a road, allows fire fighters access to an area; and it provides a line from which to either resist an oncoming fire, or, more usually, a line from which to start a controlled back burn.
Many landowners, especially those in difficult terrain, prefer to burn firebreaks around their properties during autumn, rather than trying to create and maintain cleared tracks, which can be difficult, expensive, or even impossible to achieve; and which can cause serious erosion. It could even be argued that a burnt firebreak is a better, more environmentally friendly, cheaper and more efficient option than a scraped road; but it does mean that there might not be access for vehicles along the break in the event of a need to combat an advancing fire.
The Act has quite a lot to say about burning firebreaks; and landowners who choose this option need to be familiar with the following:
12. (2) (a) If an owner intends to prepare and maintain a firebreak by burning, he/ she must determine a mutually agreeable date or dates with theowner(s) of adjoining land for doing so, and inform the FPA for the area.
(b) If agreement cannot be reached [those who drafted the lawabout intransigent neighbours!], such owner must give to the owners of adjoining land and the FPA at least 14 days’ written notice of the day/ days during which he / she intends burning firebreaks, fire danger permitting.
(3) An owner of adjoining land who has agreed [to the burning on a particular day/days] must –
(a) burn his firebreak on the boundary concerned on the same day / days;
or (b) be present, or have his agent present, at such burning; and
(c) ensure that a sufficient number of persons are present on his / her sideof the boundary to prevent any spread of fire when the firebreak is burned.
NB (4) An owner may not burn a firebreak, despite having complied with the
above if –
the FPA objects to the proposed burning; or
a warning has been published...because the fire danger is high in the region; or
the conditions are not conducive to the burning of firebreaks.
The FPA has teams of personnel trained in managing and extinguishing fires. Members of an FPA can request the services of these teams in burning their firebreaks. The cost of using a team is limited to the cost of transporting the team from its base to and from the property to be burned. Contact the FPA for further information.
Remember, that failure on the part of an owner to create a fire break is a criminal offence, punishable by a fine, jail sentence or both.
The Act stipulates what landowners need to provide for on their properties in order to prevent / combat fires; and also the circumstances under which they may enter other people’s properties:
17. (1) Every owner on whose land a veld fire may start or burn, or from whose land it may spread must –
(a) have such equipment, protective clothing and trained personnel forextinguishing fires as are –
(i) prescribed; or
(ii) in the absence of prescribed requirements, reasonably required in the circumstances;
(b) ensure that in his / her absence, responsible persons are present on ornear his / her land who, in the event of a fire, will –
(i) extinguish the fire, or assist in doing so; and
(ii) take all reasonable steps to alert the owners of adjoining land and the relevant FPA.
(2) An owner may appoint an agent to do all that he / she is required to do interms of this section.
18. (1) Any owner who has reason to believe that a fire on his / her land or the land of an adjoining owner may endanger life, property or theenvironment, must immediately –
(a) take all reasonable steps to notify –
(i) the Fire Protection Officer [of the FPA concerned] or, failing him / her, any member of the executive committee of the FPA; and
(ii) the owners of adjoining land; and
(b) do everything in his / her power to stop the spread of the fire.
(2) Any person who has reason to believe that a fire on any land mayendanger life, property or the environment may, together with any other person under his / her control, enter that land, or land to which the firecan spread, in order to prevent that fire from spreading, or to extinguishing it.
For those who are interested in understanding the overall legislation, the full Act is readily available (in pdf) either from me, from the Conservancy’s website, or from your local FPA.
Modimolle FPA – Secretary: Gerrit Ferreira 082 562 6204
Fire Protection Officer: Dan Mokanyama 082 664 1158
Lephalale FPA – Fire Protection Officer: Barry Kruger 073 005 9392
by Richard Wadley
1. Determine the direction in which the wind is blowing.
2. Alert landowners and other residents downwind first (in the path of the oncoming fire).
3. Then alert all your neighbours that there is a fire on your property.
4. Determine whether or not the fire can definitely be brought under control by you and your staff alone.