The Winelands Fire Protection Association reports that for every 1-degree increase in global temperatures, there’s a 29% increase in fire risk. This alarming correlation was evident in recent events as stated by The Daily Maverick in February this year. Between 1st December 2023 and 31st January 2024, more than 6,000 fires consumed nearly 100,000 hectares, making last year’s fire season one of the most severe in years.

The threat is significant to farms and agricultural holdings and can have devastating consequences for farmers and the community. As we head into what is predicted to be another hot, dry summer, Stefan de Ridder, Chairman of the Winelands Fire Protection Association in the Western Cape, warns: “It’s going to be another hell-raiser unless farmers focus on minimising the risks.” He goes on to explain that the consequences can be financially devastating: “If a fire starts on your farm, you’re legally and financially liable for all the damage it causes to other properties.”

De Ridder  emphasises that simply burning fire breaks is not sufficient to ensure a fire-safe farm, adding, “There are various other ways to provide additional protection for your property and your community.”

He outlines eight essential steps for optimal preparation:

  1. Clear Access: Make sure your people and vehicles can move freely and that fire trucks can enter the property (they’re generally 3,5m wide, 4m high and 8m long).
  2. Reduce Fuel Load: Remove combustible material that can easily ignite by either doing an ecological burn or by cutting out dead, dry wood and burning it in controlled piles.
  3. Gear Up:
  • Equipment: Ensure you have WORKING chainsaws, water pumps, backpacks, fire beaters etc., on hand.
  • PPE: Have adequate safety equipment for all staff.
  • Contact numbers: Keep your local FPA on speed dial (and make sure your membership is current).
  1. Educate and Practice:
  • Train your staff.
  • Practice with controlled burns as showing and experience is always better than telling, especially when it comes to fires.
  1. Water Source. Ensure clarity on its location and accessibility.
  2. Power source. Many farms rely on electricity to pump water. Be prepared with alternate power sources, like petrol-powered water pumps, to transfer water if required.
  3. Understand fuels: Besides wind, some vegetation can unexpectedly spread fires.
  • Gum trees: These carry oil and often explode when burning; posing a risk to people in close proximity and can throw the fire hundreds of metres away.
  • Green pinecones: They also explode/shoot when burning and pose a similar risk.
  1. Insurance. Water Bomber insurance is available for as little as R100 per month. This investment is highly worthwhile, considering that in 2023, R25 million was spent on just three water bombing helicopters in the Cape Winelands region alone.

De Ridder regularly conducts controlled burns, including fire breaks and ‘ecological’ burns for ageing plants. For example, South Africa’s beloved proteas retain seeds in their flowers until fire triggers their release. “Periodic fires are therefore essential for protea germination and sustainability,” he explains, “and without burning them, old proteas die and become hazardous fire fuel.”

When it comes to choosing firefighting equipment, de Ridder says he relies on Husqvarna products. He uses their chainsaws for clearing and is particularly impressed with their pumps: “They’re small, powerful, reliable and easy to move around besides being budget-friendly. The W25P is great for transferring water and the 321SP high-pressure pump means I don’t have to dig up fynbos roots to ensure they’re not alight; I just use the high-pressure stream to do the underground firefighting essential in this vegetation.”

When tackling a fire, de Ridder strategically deploys two bakkies: one with a bakkie sakkie and another, ready with pumps, stationed next to teams at critical points in the fire’s path.  This approach turns dams and streams into usable firefighting water sources. “Fire is a natural part of our ecosystems,” he concludes, “so we need to be prepared. With the right tools and knowledge, we can protect our farms and ensure their resilience in the face of wildfires.”

If you need to equip your farm this fire season, start here: