Devastating wildfire in Portugal a replica of what happened in the Southern Cape (Knysna/ Plett) Fires

Exactly how the respective RSA/ Portugal fires started is almost academic by now, but, recent devastating wild fires in both Portugal and the Southern Cape were in intensified to the extreme by the prevalence of invasive alien plants, says Cobus Meiring of the Southern Cape Landowners Initiative (SCLI).

Ironically, Eden District Municipality, NMMU (SRU) and SCLI hosted a seminar on the dangers posed by invasive alien plants a mere four days before the Knysna fires erupted.

Between June 6 and June 10, fires destroyed more than 600 structures in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay when gale force winds exceeding 90 km/h made fire fighting extremely difficult.

Literally days after the Knysna/ Plettenberg Bay disaster, central Portugal was rocked by similarly deadly fires, with a shockingly high death toll. Were South African authorities, such as Eden District Disaster Management, the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association, and the respective municipal emergency and fire- fighting services not as effective as they were, the death toll in the Southern Cape could have been much worse.

A series of deadly wildfires erupted across central Portugal in the afternoon of 17 June 2017, resulting in at least 64 deaths and 160 injured people. The majority of deaths took place in Pedrógão Grande, when a fire swept across a road filled with evacuees escaping in their cars. Portuguese officials dispatched more than 1,700 firefighters nationwide to combat the blazes, and Prime Minister António Costa declared three days of national mourning.

Although on different continents, invasive alien plants played a significant role in the severity of the respective fires.

Any Portuguese conservationist will tell you off-hand what a blue gum, wattle, blackwood and long- leaved wattle is, the extent thereof on the Portuguese country side, and the risk they pose in terms of fire, water security and bio-diversity.

The Portuguese forests of Pinhal Interior Norte, where Pedrógão Grande is located, are predominately composed of pine trees and the invasive species, eucalyptus, the latter having surpassed pine as the dominant tree in the country in the last ten years.

The unabated spread of black wattle trees through the Portuguese countryside pose a similar threat to the countries environment as in South Africa.

Half of the Pinhal Interior Norte where Pedrógão is located is now made up of wild eucalyptus plantations.

Counting the cost to an already financially stretched Southern Cape region, much of which could be ascribed to invasive alien plants.
Back in Knysna, the mayor, Eleanore Bouw-Spies, acknowledged the severe psychological impact
of the fire, let alone the threat to the jobs of at least 2 500 people in the popular tourist and artists’ haven.

Councillor Spies explained that the drought, the shortage of water and the proliferation of alien vegetation made the fire even more devastating.
Alien vegetation that seeds after the fire will have to be removed and experts need to be on the lookout for mudslides caused by the denuded hillsides and dunes.

According to Colin Deiner, Western Cape Disaster Management Chief Director, the fires led to the largest deployment of fire fighting resources and personnel in a single incident in South Africa’s history. Deiner said 985 fighters, 78 fire vehicles, six Oryx military helicopters, four Working on Fire helicopters and two fixed wing bomber aircraft were deployed to battle the Knysna blaze, which lasted several days. He called the deployment of resources the biggest success of Provincial Disaster Services.

The Southern Cape Landowners Initiative (SCLI), is a public platform for landowners and land managers with an interest in the control and eradication of invasive alien plants in the Southern Cape. SCLI is supported by the Table Mountain Fund, an associated trust of WWF SA.