Text: Elmarie Krige
Special contribution: Professor A.E. Van Wyk

According to the National Veld and Forest Fire Act 1998, we, as landowners, are all responsible for making firebreaks to prevent veldfires from spreading. Failing to do so, landowners can, and may be held responsible and can and may be prosecuted for damages caused by the uncontrolled spread of such veldfires. There is a booklet available clearly setting out the abovementioned law (this booklet should be available from your nearest fire station).

It is important to also note that, to just cut grass short, only helps to a certain extent; short grass can still burn and with fierce winds like we often get, the fire can still spread to neighbouring properties, causing devastation. However, if you read the contribution by Professor Van Wyk, you will realize how import it is for a grassland biome to do not just regular fire breaks, but also to do a controlled fire on you property on a regular basis.

The two most important rules to be remembered when making firebreaks are firstly to never ever leave a fire unattended, and secondly never assume a fire is dead. We have seen in the past how, when a fire is assumed to be “out”, it suddenly takes on a new life with the slightest bit of wind and get totally out of control, causing a lot of damage. The following points should be borne in mind when making firebreaks:

  • Proper planning before starting firebreaks and/or burning of veld is essential. In pre-panning, one must ensure escape routes for animals/helpers.

  • Notify people in your vicinity (as well as others with more/better fire-fighting equipment who might be of help in an emergency) of one’s intentions.

  • Always make sure one has enough help when planning firebreaks.

  • Make sure one has, apart from arranged helpers on the day, extra help available on speed dial, should things get out of hand.

  • Also ensure the right equipment, (in good working order) is available before starting.

  • Make sure that there is easy access to water source/s nearby.

  • If possible, wear protective clothing/shoes and have lots of drinking water at hand.

  • Make sure someone close by who is available on the day, knows first aid or else have emergency numbers at hand in case somebody gets burned or suffers from smoke inhalation.

According to the National Veld and Forest Act (1998) there are clear rules when deciding to make firebreaks – one of them being to advise neighbours two weeks in advance of one’s intention. However, this can be impractical with the unpredictability of wind conditions in our area. Even a day in advance sometimes does not work as one may assume it will be a quiet day, when suddenly conditions change.

In our area Conserv Security provides courses on how to go about making firebreaks. So, if unsure on how to go about it, it would be advisable to attend one of these courses. In the past, when veld fires got out of hand, they proofed to be invaluable with co-ordination of operations by radio, as well as providing physical help. With their excellent communications system we usually only need to advise them of intentions to do fire-breaks as they make sure people on their communications system are aware of your intentions – much easier than trying to get hold of everyone living near you.

During previous correspondence with Prof Braam van Wyk of the University of Pretoria, he suggested I add his article, “Fire, the essential Rejuvenator”, which he has specifically written as a contribution to the book “Wild Flowers of the Magaliesberg” by Kevin Gill and Andry Engelbrecht, to our website. This interesting article explains fully why not just making firebreaks, but also why the burning of sections of one’s property on a regular basis is very important.

This lovely book would be a worthwhile addition to anyone living in our area’s library. It is also a useful reference guide to any wild flower enthusiast. “Wild Flowers of the Magaliesberg” was written and published by Kevin Gill. Most of the flowers described in this book also occur in our area and, although the article below deals with the Magaliesberg area, our area has similar veld conditions and plant life, thus the same fire management measures apply to us.

Uncontrolled veld fires have devastating consequences (as we see for example in the Western Cape every year), however, it is always amazing that new growth sprout almost overnight from the burnt veld. A controlled regular burning however is of course preferred and the right way to go if one cares about the environment and especially in the Cradle where one should care about conserving our natural heritage.

Fire, the essential Rejuvenator – Braam van Wyk

The changing of the seasons is strikingly obvious in the vegetation of the Magaliesberg – lush and green in summer, bleak and brown in winter. One of the best times to look for wild flowers is to visit a patch of burned intact grassland in early spring. Although black and seemingly lifeless from a distance, closer inspection will reveal a surprisingly rich floral display for which fire at the right time of the year is essential. Suppress the fire, and these wild flowers do not appear. There is no replacement for fire; mowing or grazing does not compensate for the rejuvenation and proliferation of life initiated by the seemingly destructive impact of a late-winter fire.

During the main growing season in summer, grasses and the associated wild flowers accumulate new plant material through photosynthesis. On the other hand, under the cold and dry conditions of winter, the above-ground parts of most grasses and wild flowers shrivel and die. Although dead above ground, most of these plants remain alive underground. Before the next growing season, some of the remaining dead above-ground plant material is broken down and recycled, mostly by microbes, termites, earthworms and other so-called consumers and decomposers. However, some dead material persists and after a number of dormant seasons the accumulated dried remains are quite abundant and the vegetation starts to loose vigour. Growth of the grasses slow down, wild flowers become less obvious and the vegetation is said to have turned moribund. Left in this state, seedlings of woody plants become more frequent with once mainly grassland areas gradually changing into savannah or thicket. Shade provided by the taller woody plants leads to gradual disappearance of the original grasses and wild flowers. Birds visit the newly established trees and bring in seed of even more woody plants. What used to be a habitat with scattered trees in a matrix of grassland now becomes an almost impenetrable thicket of woody vegetation (an effect which may also be brought about by severe overgrazing). The moribund state of the grasslands and the resultant bush encroachment indicate that something has gone wrong. For the vegetation to maintain its original structure and diversity, periodic rejuvenation is essential. This task is performed by fire.

Just as temperature and rainfall dictate the specific climatic conditions to which an organism is adapted, so does fire. In fact, fire is conceptually best viewed as on of the determinants of climate. Change the temperature, or the rainfall, and a change in biodiversity is inevitable. Likewise, any changes to the natural fire regime (seasonality, frequency, intensity) result in significant changes to vegetation and its associated plant and animal life. For example, severe overgrazing by domestic animals or game impacts on the fire regime by reducing the fuel load, thus leading to a reduction in the frequency and/or intensity f fires. Of all climatic components, fire is the one most easily manipulated by humans. Hence, in any environment, changes to the natural fire regime inevitably lead to a major impact on biodiversity.

Over millions of years he vegetation and associated animal life of the Magaliesberg have adapted to an environment in which frequent natural (including human-induced) fires formed an integral part. Today fire-sensitive plants are mainly confined to rocky outcrops, kloofs, cliffs and stream banks where they enjoy natural protection. In the less rocky areas, though, the vegetation is fire-prone, itself and indication that this is meant to burn. Historically, the regularly burned areas used to be mainly grassland, often with widely scattered trees. Trees from these more open areas, have a thick protective bark. The vast majority of plant species in grassy areas are perennial resprouters. These comprise of grasses and your more conventional wild flowers, also referred to as forbs by ecologists. Resprouters and plants that are destroyed by fire above ground, yet they are not killed, because they are equipped with persistent underground parts enabling them to resume growth after a burn.

Floristically, grasslands in the Magaliesberg are rich in forbs, including so-called underground trees (technically “geoxylic suffrutices”). Although the grasses dominate in numbers of individuals, forbs may comprise on average more than 80% of the actual species, at least at the local scale. Annuals are strikingly few, the majority comprising of naturalized aliens. The so-called pre-rain flowers are a unique component of the high-rainfall, temperate grasslands of Africa (Afromontane grasslands) and are essentially absent from primary grasslands elsewhere in the world (e.g. pampas, prairies, steppe).

Pre-rain flowers are particularly abundant in the cooler summit and south-facing slopes of the Magaliesberg, and bordering Highveld regions towards the south. They are much less abundant in the warmer, subtropical savannah to the north of the Magaliesberg, including the tree-rich warmer north-facing slopes of the mountain itself. Population stability of the forb component, notably the pre-rain flowers, is astounding. Individual plants or clones live to a great age, apparently hundreds, even thousands of years. Recruitment from seed is negligible. Flowering in pre-rain flowers is stimulated by fire. Smoke, combined with rising day temperatures is the most likely trigger for flowering in spring or earlier.

The main strategy of the pre-rain flowers is to cash in on the removal of dead plant material by fire. Flowering in this highly specialized group of plants is not dependent on the rainfall. In fact, flowering often predates the first good rains of summer, hence the designation “pre-rain flowers”. During the summer these plants accumulate water and nutrients in underground storage structures, such as bulbs, tubers, corms or rootstocks. This gives the plants a competitive advantage to flower and fruit in early spring, often the driest time of the year. The aftermath of a fire provides them with a brief window of opportunity to advertise for the services of pollinators without having to compete with the tall stems of the ever-present grasses.

Sprouting in the pre-rain flowers is lightning fast. Seemingly overnight they make their appearance, often a mere cluster of flowers against the black ashes left behind by the fires. Leaves are but slow to develop because flowering is the main priority, just as quickly followed by fruiting and dispersal of seed. It is as if the plants are involved in a race against time, because anytime now the first good rains of the new growing season will fall, resulting in the rapid growth of the grasses. Also, it is as if the pre-rain flowers want their seed to be dispersed before the rains, thus ensuring any seedlings are well established by the onset of the dormant season.

Arguably the number one threat to the future maintenance of the rich biodiversity of the Magaliesberg and surrounding areas is fire-suppression and its associated increase in tree density (bush encroachment). Paradoxically, this is often brought about by the good intentions of landowners keen to conserve nature, but misguided by the popular belief that fire is necessarily undesirable and destructive. Based on the resprouting and flowering behaviour of the pre-rain flowers, periodic natural grassland fires must have occurred before mid-August in the past. Recommended time for burning of grassland in the Magaliesberg is late in July, provided the main objective is to manage for biodiversity.

When practical, it is suggested that burning be done so as to maintain a mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation. Fortunately this is readily achieved due to the protective role of bush clumps as well as rocky outcrops in the mountainous landscape. Although annual fires do not seem to have a long-term negative effect on biodiversity, a burn every two years is recommended, irrespective of whether the vegetation is grassland or savannah.

Post-fire regrowth invariably attracts many game species’, which may lead to severe damage to the veld from overgrazing and trampling. In areas with game, burned areas should always be sufficiently large to carry the expected influx of grazers. Landowners in the Magaliesberg should devise an appropriate burning strategy, taking into consideration both legal (permit) and practical management requirements. Landowners are also encouraged to become members of their local Fire Protection Agency (FPA – if operational) or to initiate one. Through such an association neighbouring landowners can work together on common fire-management issues.

Prof Braam (AE) Van Wyk

Professor, Plant Science (Louis Botha Chair)

Section: Plant Diversity

Curator of HGWJ Schweickerdt Herbarium

University of Pretoria

Prof. A.E. [Braam] van Wyk is a plant taxonomist, trained at Potchefstroom University for C.H.E. and the University of Pretoria. He did his masters and doctoral degrees on the classification of the genus Eugenia (Myrtaceae) in Southern Africa. Prof. Van Wyk is responsible for most undergraduate and all graduate teaching in plant taxonomy/systematics and has been on the staff of the Department since 1977.

He has authored or co-authored more than 350 publications on the botany of southern Africa, including several books. Prof. Van Wyk has received the Silver Medal for Botany from the South African Association of Botanists; Allen Dyer Award from the Succulent Society of South Africa; Havenga Prize for Life Sciences from the South African Academy for Science and Arts and the Exceptional Academic Achiever Award from the University of Pretoria. Prof. Van Wyk enjoys making biology accessible to the public and has often participated in a weekly science programme on radio.

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*I approached the author of “Wild Flowers of the Magaliesberg”, and he kindly gave permission to use the article.