Out of the ashes: Notes on the March 2015 Cape Town wildfire

by | Mar 3, 2015 | Cape Floristic Region, Cape Peninsula, Conservation, Ecology, Fire, Fynbos, Geophytes, Mountains, Table Mountain | 65 comments

In the Mother City the mountains are ablaze. It is late summer. Four days ago the fire started in Farmer Peck’s Valley adjacent to the seaside suburb of Muizenberg, known for its surf and sharks. Sitting here at home it is 42°C and the sound of helicopters are a constant background alongside the low hum of the city of Cape Town going about its daily business. The fire spread quickly and gained strength owing to strong southeaster winds typical of Cape summer weather grounding helicopter crews and leaving ground-based fire teams to fight the blaze. Despite the best efforts of emergency services the fire spread throughout Silvermines section of Table Mountain National Park over towards Fishhoek, Tokai, Noordhoek and Hout Bay.

Emergency services staff and the crews of the Volunteer Wildfire services as well as numerous other fire teams have been working through day and night to contain the blaze and to try and minimise damage to neighbouring property and danger to residents of the city. Numerous people have been evacuated from homes in proximity to the fire line and residents of a care home in Noordhoek have been treated for smoke inhalation. Several hikers caught in the blaze have also been rescued. Several homes as well as the upmarket hotel of Tintswalo Atlantic near Hout Bay have been burnt to the ground. As the fire continues to burn additional staff from the Working on Fire project have been brought in from other parts of the country to provide support to the fire effort and relieve those who have been working to the best of their ability to keep everyone safe and out of harm.

The media both local and international has been flooded with extensive coverage and social media channels have been buzzing with photos, commentary, opinion and questions. The injury and loss of livelihood to all those affected is tragic. It is the challenge that all residents of Cape Town face when living at the margins of an iconic national park filled with flammable vegetation that easily can burn during the summer months.

However, there seems to be a widely held view that the fire is also a force for destruction of the vegetation of the mountain and are filled with sadness of destruction of the beautiful fynbos. Fire can bring challenges, loss, injury and destruction to the unluckiest city residents. My heart goes out to those affected who have faced fear or loss of their homes or have been evacuated away from the fire line. I wish strength to the fire crews who have been working tirelessly in the toughest of conditions to contain the blaze.

This reality comes as part of life within a city in the Cape Floristic Region. The fynbos vegetation that clothes the mountains of the Cape Peninsula and throughout the Cape Floristic Region is both fire prone and fire dependent. When fynbos burns it is a challenging neighbour to live alongside. But alongside our sympathy and support for all those affected we need to also understand that fire is a natural part of the ecology of the Fynbos Biome. After the tragedy of injury and destroyed property will come new life in the veld. Without fire there would be no fynbos.

The burning of fynbos vegetation is an inevitability. It is sad that people are negatively affected but it is far from sad that the veld itself is burning. This vegetation type has been subjected to fire for millennia and the optimum fire interval is every 10-14 years. Fire is a keystone process without which many plants in the fynbos would not be able to regenerate, produce offspring or reproduce. Fynbos plants are either resprouters or reseeders: Either they can resprout after a fire has passed through or they produce seeds that are adapted to survive fire and require heat from the fire and chemical compounds from the smoke to germinate.

At present after the fire Silvermines looks like a blackened lunar landscape. At first glance it appears that nothing can have survived. But as the fire moved through the landscape members of the Proteaceae family will have opened their cones and spread their seed within hours, ready for new life to begin once more. These seeds provide essential food and nourishment for those rodents who have survived the fire.

Fire also stimulates the growth and flowering of numerous different species. Fire lilies from the genus Cyrtanthus will flower less than two weeks after fire, their flowering being stimulated by the smoke. Given that this is a summer fire, as time goes by other geophytic (bulbous) species will also break their dormancy and start to grow and flower. As the autumn rains and cooler temperatures come later in the season seedlings of reseeding shrubs will start to germinate, their dormancy having been broken by the heat and smoke from the fire. As winter passes growth continues and as spring arrives the fynbos will be filled with a profusion of colour from mass flowering of bulbs such as those from the genus Watsonia and numerous others. Other plants such as orchids will also grow and flower, making the most of the additional light and space created by the burning of the overstorey vegetation.

A question often asked is what about the animals? What will happen to them? Insects and birds will fly from the fire and many insects and spiders will survive as eggs or pupae buried in the soil or underground in ants nests. Many reptiles are adapted to take refuge in cracks in the rocks or in rodent burrows as the fire moves through the landscape.Tortoises often survive veld fires in this way but among these slower moving creatures there are often a few casualties. Their sad charcoal blackened bodies are often visible scattered through the skeletons of shrubs after a fire has moved through. Nature seems cruel at this moment. Those larger mammals that can will run from the flames. Numbers of some rodents including the Pygmy Mouse will actually increase after a fire owing to their preference and tolerance of more open landscapes.

It may not seem so now amidst the heat, chaos, injury, loss and destruction, but with time out of the ashes of this fire will come new life….like a phoenix. Watch and wait…..

 

65 Comments

  1. Thank You :)) that is a wondeful.uplifting piece of writing ♡★♡

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  2. Hier is groot waarheid geskryf. Binnekort sal iemand skryf oor 'n 'nuwe spesie' van die of daardie blom/plant wat weer, na dekades, hul verskyning maak.

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  3. Thanks for a great article. Can you comment on where you think would be a good idea to hike in order to see fire lilies in bloom?

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  4. An uplifting read. Thank you.

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  5. Very inspirational! Thank you

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  6. Than you for writing such a well balanced and positive article at this time!!

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  7. I think most of us know the issue isn't fire per se but how often it happens. I read your article hoping for some info on when the last burn was and how the more frequent burns are affecting the fynbos in some of the areas. Is it not true that some areas burn far too often and this endangers plants in the Cape Town area? Also, I recall reading somewhere that some forest areas are best burned even less often.

    The other issue is under what conditions the burns happen. In a built-up city like Cape Town, it needs to happen when it can be controlled, not on the hottest windiest day of the year.

    Still, it's great to be reminded of the benefits of fire.

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  8. Excellent article!
    A regime of controlled burning large blocks of the fynbos areas over a 10 to 14 year rotation should be followed. Such a periodic burn is beneficial to fynbos, as described in the article. Being controlled fires the likelyhood of injury and damage to property wil be greatly reduced.
    Chaotic response from neighbouring residents, emergency evacuations, looting of these areas, costly fire fighting efforts and unplanned road closures, as is currently the case with the uncontrolled wild fires, should be averted with a properly planned and controlled block burning regime.

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  9. Hi there… really insightful piece of writing, can you please get in touch for an interview? info@traveller24.com

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  10. Oh and PS, it was exacly 15 years ago that the last HUGE Table Mountain range fires happened, wiped the whole range clean, much like this one but more extensive. So your mention of 10 to 14 years is spot on 🙂

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  11. What a beautiful piece of writing… thank you so very much… it has lightened my heart somewhat as I sit here feeling tired from no sleep watching my beloved Hout Bay burn… Helplessly watching the mountains behind me my dogs and I so love to walk in, the secret forest we play in and the big ol pine we sat under not a month ago… my heart aches at the thought of the wee ones who die… and of course the aftermath looks hopeless… but your article has renewed a sense and undersatnding in me that it is ok, its natural, and new life will be born… thank you so much…. Have a wonderful day 🙂

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  12. Thank you. At last. Spread the word.

    (Please consider setting your background to white or flat colour – hard to read even good stuff over the shadow of the protea.)

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  13. Kudos to those well-meaning supporters of the local firefighters. Now if only Capetonians would respond as well to the regular fires that break out in our "townships" (because they aren't electrified and rely on paraffin for light and heating) … taking scores of lives and leaving thousands of families homeless and destitute each year.

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  14. Kudos to those well-meaning supporters of the local firefighters. Now if only Capetonians would respond as well to the regular fires that break out in our "townships" (because they aren't electrified and rely on paraffin for light and heating) … taking scores of lives and leaving thousands of families homeless and destitute each year.

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  15. Thank you!

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  16. Thank you for this.

    Can you comment on how the alien vegatation (rooikrans / port jackson / black wattle) is affected?

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  17. As my old prof said – it is only a disaster when people are involved. And Tokai Forest 🙁

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  18. It's heartening to read that new life waits just beneath the blackened surface, thank you! And today, rain…

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  19. Good point, David. Tikkun Olam = heal the world

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  20. Isn't nature wonderful! A few years ago we were privileged to visit Yellowstone National Park which had had devastating fires………..but the recovery was spectacular.

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  21. Wow. Beautifully put! Don't feel quite so sad anymore. Thank you.

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  22. Wow! Beautifully put! Thank you. Don't feel quite so sad anymore.

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  23. This is such an informative and uplifting piece. I grew up in Camps Bay and fires were common. We were always told that the fynbos "needed" the fires. I now understand the truth behind that generalised statement. (In the old days there were not as many fire fighters or much equipment like helicopters with buckets of water! Also, no social media to spread comment and updates).

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  24. What an amazing article – Thank You!

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  25. Amazing write-up! Thank you……I'm still saddened by the devastation but your words have had a healing effect.

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  26. Amazing … my heart has been lifted

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  27. Thank you gimpel for the reminder:)

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  28. What about the trees though, surely they get burned to a crisp?

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  29. This is an oft-repeated story – that fire is good for the fynbos. I can't help but think that this is because we think with human-years perspectives. Please explain, in the evolution of fynbos species over thousands of years, where, in the western cape, fire would have been produced in the absence of humans? Lightning? Very unlikely … this is not Gauteng…
    Granted, protea seeds are stimulated to germinate by smoke, but is that the sole stimulus? I doubt it …

    Fires burn far too frequently in the Cape peninsula because of the stupidity of humans … and I believe that it is misguided to smoothly say – oh its ok folks, the fynbos needs this. Too-regular fires are reducing our fynbos to boring stands of conebushes in many areas …

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  30. I'm so glad you took the time to write this. It will be wonderful to see the new growth when we come visit next year.
    Sadly this terrible fire has not got much international media.

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  31. Thank you much for the uplifting article .Looking forward to seeing the new growth.

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  32. But people do respond… and thanks is due to all the people and organisations that always donate food, blankets and other goods to help people in need.

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  33. According to this theory, the fynbos in Orange Kloof should be in terrible shape because it has not burnt for decades. Yet the opposite is true, and the area is probably the best kept fynbos in the world, and public access is restricted to avoid having it burn down. I am not a botanist, but these facts seem to speak for themselves?

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  34. Exquisite piece of writing communicating great truths condensed from generations of scientific research.

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  35. What an enlightening and very beautiful piece. I am going to share it with my students. 🙂

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  36. The big picture is the status of life on earth shows the early stages of the sixth mass extinction according to Stanford University #anthropocene #defaunation.
    This is caused by human hperactivity whereas the previous five mass extinctions were of natural origin.

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  37. A voice of reason CT Botanist !
    Time to put away the emotion and the sentiment and let a dose of reality kick in in terms of perspectives on things.
    To the people directly involved and affected by the fire – sympathies and also congratulations – depending on how you were involved.
    Then there are the rest of us ! Lots of exaggerated emotion – loss of breath, heart palpitations… "oh my gods" and the like – film stars we are in Cape Town !!! Folk in Bergvliet were going on as if their house was about to catch fire !
    Now lets focus – How do we deal with the fact that we have this unique natural heritage under our stewardship ?? It existed before we arrived and has survived best without us but now its part of us – our baby. So….we gonna continue allowing people to build so high up the slopes of mountains – raping the natural eye-line? Or we say this high and no higher regardless of your bank balance? And no thatch dwellings at the top build line or you pay a huge premium to do so! Point being – we can do many things to ensure that we can fit in with Nature and co-exist in harmony.
    "oh my god I am going on a bit now am I not ………"

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  38. RobTee – there was a fire at Cape Point (near Olifantsbos) yesterday that was started by a lightning strike. We have thunderstorms in the W Cape more often than most people realise. And there are some proteacea species that are dependent on smoke to germinate

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  39. Good perspective. There nevertheless remains a significant problem arising from reducing intervals and increasing regularity of fires. The full scope of that problem remains to be seen, but it is plainly not good.

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  40. Out of tradgidy comes beauty

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  41. Thanks for a bit of hope after such a depressing week.

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  42. the last big fire was January 2000. Exactly the recommended 15 years.

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  43. Fire and Flowers = beauty. Thanks for a lovely article.

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  44. Thank you for the reminder that after the devastating fire, new and abundant life springs up. Long dormant life resurrects if we have the patience to wait a season.

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  45. The trees are aliens, their death is good for the fynbos.

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  46. Thanks for that… wow always appreciate someone saying it like it is.

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  47. Expected more from a.. botanist..

    The fires are especially wild because of the Port Jacksons, introduced by idiots years ago to control the sand dunes. Unfortunately, these plants burn far fiercer and hotter than the Fynbos, killing animals below the surface that would normally survive such an event. Now, out of this stark landscape, the Port Jacksons will pioneer and be an even greater menace.

    Maybe a good thing is, that as the Port Jacksons sprout again, there will be a golden opportunity to easily traverse the slopes to pull them out.

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  48. orange kloof is Afro Montane forest – yellow woods etc. not fynbos

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  49. No worries its a pleasure. Unfortunately Silvermines has been closed to hikers for safety reasons so I can't really recommend that you contravene the rules. There might be some visible from Chapman's Peak area though…..

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  50. Thank you definitely an important point to raise. It is always good for folks to be reminded of this one and to keep an ear to the ground so that appeals from local fire stations are supported.

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  51. I heartily agree with you on this one! See Brian Van Wilgen's excellent recent article echoing your words. Sadly SANParks get hideously tied up in government bureaucracy so getting the required permits to do controlled burns is a nightmare. Often only it is possible to get burn permits during winter when to burn would be at a severe detriment to the environment. It is a thorny and controversial issue…

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  52. Many thanks for your input. Yes indeed the ideal situation would be for a series of controlled block burns to happen so that there are a mosaic of different veld ages and the burn can happen on a hot and windy day when it can spiral out of control Sadly getting permits to burn is blighted with red tape and bureaucracy and in consequence often SANParks isn't in a position to do so. And sadly a huge wildfire that destroys properties is the consequence. This particular fire was at the appropriate interval, but yes in some cases this is not the case, particularly the recent fire at Jonkershoek which hit an area last burnt in 2009. Indigenous forest is not a fire prone vegetation type, but the margins should be burnt at the same fire interval as fynbos to stop the surrounding vegetation being colonised by forest precursor species such as Searsia.

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  53. Thank-you so much for your positive feedback, I am glad that you enjoyed the article.

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  54. Thank-you very much! 🙂 I am glad that you enjoyed reading and thankyou for your interest.

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  55. Yes it is extraordinary, already we can see signs of recovery after the fire.

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  56. Thank-you so much for your positive feedback and interest in the article.

    Reply

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