Grasslands are dry in the winter months – fire is therefore a very clear and present danger and must be managed and controlled. There are wild fires that start with lightning, but there are also wild fires that are started with intent, or through negligence. Fire though, is also a very valuable conservation tool when applied according to a management plan. Grasslands are both fire-prone and fire-dependent, requiring fire to maintain their biodiversity patterns and ecological processes. Fire is, therefore, critical for maintaining the health of grassland ecosystems and is also one of the most practical means of manipulating large areas of grassland for different management objectives. Some of the ecological benefits of fire in grasslands include:
- Enhancement of primary productivity by stimulating new growth.
- Removal of dead and moribund plant material that will shade out the next season’s growth.
- Release of nutrients and organic material back into the soil.
- Providing an opportunity for the species-rich forb component of the grasslands to flourish.
- Control of woody invasive alien species and indigenous weeds.
- Increased habitat diversity, by forming a mosaic of structurally-differing habitats within the grassland landscape – for example, a mix of tall and recently-burnt short grass provides habitat for different animals.
- Limiting the establishment of woody species and the possibility of a shift towards a more dominant woody component (such as in savanna or woodland).
Fire Management and Conservation
Management of fire is governed by law in South Africa and there are legal implications to negligence in the management of fire. All landholders are required by law to draw up and implement an appropriate fire management plan that should be approved by the local Fire Protection Association. Natural fire cycles in South African landscapes have become severely disrupted mostly because of misconceptions about the valuable role fire plays, increased habitat fragmentation and because of the risks associated with managing fire in a production landscape. Unplanned or poorly-timed fires can be detrimental, affecting natural habitats, damaging ecosystem functioning, endangering life and destroying property. Pro-active fire management through planned and controlled burning, however, is an essential part of wise landscape management in grasslands. Grassland species and ecosystems respond differently to varying fire regimes, especially when the effects of fire are considered in conjunction with the grazing regime to which the grassland might be subjected. The incorrect application of fire can result in a shift in species composition, encroachment by invasive alien or indigenous woody species, a decline in basal cover and an associated increase in soil erosion. Excluding fire for extended periods can result in permanent damage to the grassland. The decision on how to burn a portion of grassland must always be founded on a clearly articulated set of management objectives for the land, and knowledge of the nature of the ecosystem (e.g. its productivity and life-history characteristics) and its ecological requirements. Fire can be used proactively as a management tool by manipulating the frequency, intensity and season of burn, in accordance with the requirements and tolerance of the particular grassland ecosystem, and the use to which it is being put. It is important to note that the use of fire as a management tool becomes increasingly important in regions with higher rainfall.
Fire Protection Association
The National Veld & Forest Fires Act of 1998 promotes the formation of Fire Protection Associations (FPA). Membership confers the benefit that if fire spreads from a member’s property there is not an automatic presumption of negligence, as is the case of non-members. A local FPA facilitates cooperation between neighbours on common fire management issues and sets minimum standards of fire protection specific to the area. See full details of the Crocodile River Reserve Fire Protection Association that was formed in 2008. If you live in the area BE A MEMBER. The Act requires a national system of fire danger rating to be established. Once in place, this system will issue daily ratings that will govern whether or not people will be able to ignite fires in the open air. This will also dictate the level of preparedness / alert of fire fighting forces. The Occupational Health and Safety Act provisions require that workers are safely trained and equipped for work. Expecting untrained workers to assist in fire management response is illegal and dangerous. Although a critical component of the response aspect, preparedness is necessary in order to be able to respond in a desired manner. Emergency and evacuation procedures are an obligation and should be well constructed and pre-planned.