Things are “Burnin’ Up” this Winter

It’s that time of the year again!

Welgevonden Management, with the help of a Working on Fire team, has been hard at work implementing the 2018 Fire Protection Plan. By the 21st of June, the team had managed to burn a total of 20km of firebreaks.

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These were burned along a section of Manual Gate Road and the entire boundary separating Marakele National Park and Welgevonden Game Reserve. In addition to firebreaks, the team has mowed 5 meters of grass on the road verges in the southern section of the Reserve, widening these roads to 15m.

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All these initiatives will help during controlled burning opportunities and prevent the spread of fire.

But what exactly are firebreaks? And why all the fuss about fire?

What is a firebreak?

Firebreak n. (def.) an obstacle to the spread of fire, such as a strip of open space in a forest.

As a firebreak will consist of little to no flammable material, it will typically prevent the ignition or spread of fire. For example, roads, cleared fence lines and burnt areas are good examples of effective firebreaks, provided that they are wide enough to combat the specific fire conditions experienced in that area. Welgevonden generally makes use of roads and the cleared perimeter fence line as basic firebreaks. However, with the high fire risk status of the Reserve, these basic fire protection measures are enhanced by the burning firebreaks adjacent to strategically selected roads or fence lines.

Firebreaks serve two functions.

Firstly, firebreaks prevent runaway fires from, well, running away. It is almost impossible to prevent a raging fire from spreading without a firebreak in place – when a fire is detected burning towards a specific direction, a “backburn” is initiated from an appropriate firebreak. This controlled fire will then burn “backward” (as the name suggests), towards the veld fire and ultimately burn off any vegetation that would have otherwise acted as fuel for the runaway fire. Firebreaks are also important in preventing accidental fires from igniting along roads or boundaries.

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Why the need for fire?

Today, the function of fire within savanna ecosystems is well understood, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, when the Kruger Park was initially established, fire was viewed as destructive and hence excluded from the managed system entirely.

Thankfully, researchers quickly started evaluating the function of fires within the savanna biome and from 1980 onwards, managers of savanna protected areas began large scale experimentation of different fire regimes. They soon discovered the importance of fire, realising that it benefits the ecosystem in numerous ways, including: releasing nutrients held in old dry plant material, influencing herbivore distributions and feeding patterns, enabling the germination of certain seeds, and influencing the balance between grasses and trees.

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For many years, managers thought it best to apply a very rigid and fixed burning regime, burning areas of land at the same time of year at the same return interval. However, research has shown that this management strategy has an extremely negative effect on biodiversity, favouring the growth and persistence of species specifically adapted to the selected fire regime. Through this, managers have since discovered the importance of implementing a dynamic fire regime and taking into account historical disturbance data such as pastoralist fires and ad hoc lightening fires.

Welgevonden’s Fire Policy

The Waterberg area experiences a significant amount of vegetation growth during the wet season each year which contributes towards a large fuel load for potential fires. In addition, the area, and Welgevonden Game Reserve in particular, is prone to numerous lightning strikes. Bearing these two factors in mind it is safe to assume that, historically, fire has played a vital role in maintaining ecosystem function within the Waterberg region.

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Lightning fires are unique in that they spread outward from a single point of ignition – vastly different behaviour compared to controlled perimeter burns generally applied by management. Evidence suggests that fires with point ignition, occurring at differing intervals, are effective in maintaining habitat diversity. They do so by preventing bush encroachment and creating an optimal patch-like mosaic of vegetative growth phases. Although lightning fires are a natural phenomenon and are known to burn under a variety of conditions, the Reserve is most likely to experience these fires during the latter phases of winter or early summer before the annual rains.

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2018 Fire Protection Plan

Previous burning programs on Welgevonden were based on the following factors: intuition on fire risk to Reserve infrastructure, combatting encroaching shrubs, and providing green grazing for herbivores. However, since the initiation of the Game Introduction Programme in 2015, it has become necessary to protect the Reserve from large scale fires that could potentially threaten herbivore’s food supply.

The 2018 Fire Protection Plan is based on a new approach of decision making. This year, a combination of three well researched elements: fire history, fodder bank (total vegetative biomass) and herbivore grazing levels, were used to determine which areas within the Reserve needed to be prioritized for fire protection.

For this reason, management implemented the burning of a new firebreak along a segment of Manual Gate Road which is an extension through an area of relatively high fuel load. In addition, the boundary between Marakele National Park and Welgevonden Game Reserve was also burnt seen as this section has both a high vegetative fuel load and high incidence of lightning strikes. This firebreak will also help prevent any large fires from spreading into the Reserve from the massive piece of neighbouring land.

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As firebreaks are vital in the protection of infrastructure situated within the Reserve, each lodge is encouraged to establish and maintain a firebreak around their building prior to the fire season.

A very exciting element of this year’s Fire Plan is the Molasses Trial. Through experimentation in previous years, it was discovered that molasses, a highly sought out energy rich food source, can be used to reduce the grass layer – the trick is to spray the sticky substance onto the grass in the correct concentration! This has since prompted the idea of using animal grazing as a tool to lower herbaceous content. Instead of actively burning along selected roads, Management will be spraying belts of molasses in these areas in hopes that the animals will graze away the flammable material, ultimately creating a firebreak. The outcome of this trial is eagerly awaited as it could revolutionise the way Management create and locate firebreaks, and reduce any risk that comes with burning firebreaks.

Working on Fire

The Fire Protection Plan would not be possible without the assistance of the local Fire Protection Association and the Working on Fire Teams who help with the burning of firebreaks as well as controlling fires within the Reserve. These teams are well trained, equipped and experienced in working with fire and have become an integral element of fire management at Welgevonden Game Reserve.

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When it comes to fire, Welgevonden is always on the alert. It is thanks to research based decision making, pre-emptive planning, and impeccable response time, that keeps the Reserve both protected and biodiverse.

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