26 August 2020 Media Release: Garden Route District Municipality and stakeholders bump up efforts to extinguish peat-wetland fires

Media Release: Garden Route District Municipality and stakeholders bump up efforts to extinguish peat-wetland fires

For immediate release
26 August 2020

On 26 June 2020, the Garden Route District Municipality (GRDM) Fire & Rescue Services commenced with efforts to finally extinguish peat fires in the Garden Route district. One at the Kamma River in Bonniedale, Mossel Bay and the other at Weyers River in Bergfontein, Albertinia. Peat-wetland fires pose a threat to ecosystems by releasing smoke and heat through soil and vegetation, compromise wetlands.

Mr Deon Stoffels, Station Officer: Fire Safety and Training from GRDM at the peat fire in Bonniedale.

The response from the GRDM Fire & Rescue Service officials was first to assess and demarcate the exact extent of the peat fires. According to Mr Deon Stoffels, GRDM Fire Station Officer for Fire Safety and Training, smoke was evident on arrival – in small pockets appearing from underground”. This necessitated follow-up site visits on 29 June and 02 July 2020 whereby thermal images were captured with the municipality’s Thermal Imaging Drone to map and confirm the underground fire activity.

The immediate role-players involved in the response and planning were GRDM Fire & Rescue Services, Department Environmental Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), Working for Wetlands, Cape Nature and the respective landowners.

Mr Johan Brand, Station Officer from GRDM Fire and Rescue Services holding one of the tools utilised in the testing and assessment of the sub-surface layers.

The above-mentioned site visits were followed up in middle July for the purpose to capture more thermal imagery to estimate the extent of the spread after two periods of moderate to heavy rainfall. Following the assessment, it was confirmed that the spread of the fire continued.

On the 28 and 29 July 2020, all role-players engaged in on-site visits and the peatland specialist from DEFF, with the assistance of representatives of GRDM Fire & Rescue and Cape Nature, performed assessments and tests. “These were done to determine the full extent of the peat fires, e.g. depth of underground fire activity, condition of the wetland, as well as the environmental and ecological impact of the fire and if continues, the fire activity,” Mr Stoffels, said.  After assessments and tests were completed it was jointly agreed that an Offensive Strategy would be the most practicable approach to deal with the underground and/or peat fires which include;

  • preventing the spread of fire;
  • fighting and extinguishing the fire; and
  • protection of life and property against the fire or other threatening danger:
  • In this case also, the protection of the environment against the fire and other threats.

The strategy will assist in mitigating adverse impacts on the environment, as well as aid in protecting and sustaining the biodiversity of wetlands. Role-players such as GRDM Fire & Rescue, the landowners, Cape Nature, Working for Wetlands, Southern Cape Fire Protection Association and Working on Fire were involved from beginning of the process, however the GRDM Fire and Rescue Services and the landowners started with their operations on 19 August 2020 and Cape Nature on 21 August 2020.

According to Dr Nina Viljoen, Manager for Environmental Management as GRDM, peatlands are present in a third of wetlands worldwide, which contribute a range of ecosystem services. The most pronounced services are biodiversity conservation, water quality and climate regulation. The addition of peat to a wetland allows these wetlands to have additional ecosystem services. She added: “The unique properties of peat allow for a variation in the dynamics of the ecosystem services provided.  This makes peatlands a major contributor to wetlands’ increased capacity for climate, water quality and quantity regulation, biodiversity conservation and waste assimilation”.

Areas in the Garden Route district affected by the wildfire. Thermal images captured with the Thermal Imaging Drone of Garden Route District Municipality.

Dr Viljoen further explained: “The destruction of peatlands by means of fires causes a visible and immediate degradation in the integrity of the aquatic ecosystems downstream of peatlands. This causes major changes to change the hydrology of the peatland system, as well as rivers and associated ecosystem health. Compared to global abundance, she said: “Peatlands are an extremely scarce ecosystem type in South Africa, with only 1% of total wetland area being peatlands. It provides water quality (water purification and waste assimilation) function which causes peatlands to demonstrate a very significant ecosystem services value”.

What is peat?

Peat, also known as turf is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. Peat forms in wetland conditions, where flooding or stagnant water obstructs the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere, slowing the rate of decomposition.

Peatlands cover approximately 3% of the earth’s surface. The global carbon stored in peat is estimated to be about 500 billion tonnes, which is approximately 30% of the world’s soil carbon. Furthermore, peat stores 10% of the world’s fresh water”.

Peatlands are more valuable than normal wetlands due to the presence of peat stocks within them. Based on the services evaluated and the available data, the value of the cumulative services provided by South African peatlands was estimated to be as high as R174 billion, expressed as an ecological infrastructure value. It is therefore of the utmost importance to protect these type of wetlands against destruction, and to assess the causes of these two identified peat fires in the Garden Route district.

How do peat fires occur?

Peat fires can occur sporadically in smaller peatland systems due to system dehydration and desiccation brought on by either drought (the presence of a heat source), localised draining or flow interruption by roads – it smoulders. These smouldering fires can burn undetected for very long periods of time (months, years, and even centuries) propagating in a creeping fashion through the underground peat layer.

The current drought in the region and associated peat fires bear testimony to the vulnerability of these ecosystems to the variability in our climate patterns which can result in drought-induced peat fires in the Western Cape.