Op-ed: Could Kirstenbosch Be The Next Part Of The World To Go Up In Flames?

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Op-ed: Could Kirstenbosch Be The Next Part Of The World To Go Up In Flames?

The world is currently up in arms over the massive fires spreading through Australia. A similar outcry for action came to prominence last year when the Amazon was engulfed in flames. If these patterns are considered, the next part of the world that could be set alight is the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, an area that has fallen victim to decades of neglect.

Professor Brian van Wilgen, of Stellenbosch’s Center of Excellence for Invasion Biology, asserted in 2015 that Kirstenbosch needs to burn. Control fires are imperative for natural ecosystems, especially in regions such as Cape Town that are prone to being consumed by wildfires, such as the Table Mountain wildfire that shook the country, also in 2015. The windy, dry periods that Cape Town experiences between the months of November and May, have persistently caused fires in the mountains, areas that are littered with dry fynbos-laden vegetation, on a relatively frequent basis.

Kirstenbosch

Image by Richard I’Anson Getty Images

And while Van Wilgen did praise Cape Town firefighters for keeping naturally occurring fires under control in his interview with IOL, he also spoke of the increasing need for authorities to conduct control fires among the huge mass of vegetation that is Kirstenbosch Gardens, to continue the natural cycle of growing and burning vegetation without the massive risk of damaging, and even life threatening, fires.

Fynbos requires fire to propagate and survive.

“Some of these areas are natural forest, which won’t burn, but some are fynbos that will burn if they are ignited under the right conditions,” Van Wilgen said in the IOL interview. However, control fires have not been carried out in Kirstenbosch for well over 30 years, putting the area at a huge risk of being set ablaze.

“Because they have not burnt for so long, a lot of fuel has built up, and that will make any fire difficult to control,” Van Wilgen continued.

As is the case in many scientifically complicated problems, a lack of understanding would see the urgency for such activities to be lost on ordinary people. “The citizens of Cape Town and other visitors may not understand why such burns would be necessary,” he said.

And, because the Western Cape has been so drought stricken over the last few years, the possibility of a massive fire occurring would, logically, be even higher.

 Could Kirstenbosch catch fire?

Image credit: Wikipedia commons

Fynbos is the world’s most diverse vegetation type – even more so than tropical rainforests. Alien plantations have also resulted in infestations of alien trees in Kirstenbosch. Some citizens have been careless with inappropriate construction on the urban edge by building too high up on the mountains. This means that urban areas are also at risk of sustaining damages from major fires.

Fynbos is both fire-dependent and fire-prone. The Cape’s incredibly biodiverse fynbos plants need fire to survive and thrive, according to City Metric

Amazon and Australia Fire

Image credit: The Independent

. Fynbos has to burn every 12-15 years to maintain it’s life cycle, meaning that Kirstenbosch is well overdue in terms of the fynbos surrounding it’s alien plantations. Proteas, South Africa’s iconic plant, is also highly prone to fires.

The occurrence of fires is largely influenced by three factors, namely; management, weather patterns and fuel sources. Kirstenbosch’s lack of adequate management in the form of control fires and maintenance of fire belts fulfils the criteria for the first. The recent droughts tick the second box and thirdly, fuel sources can range from the immense amount of vegetation in the Kirstenbosch Gardens to a rogue cigarette butt or lightning, which can serve as a trigger for something genuinely catastrophic.

Then there’s the factor of global weather patterns. The recent wildfires that have devastated the Amazon rainforest and Australia are largely attributed to the prolonged effects of climate change and, considering that the fires spread West from the Amazon to Australia, it seems logical that it would spread further West to the Cape, which could be a recipe for disaster in another major landmass in the Southern hemisphere…

Fire in Australia

Image Credit: Gulf News/Agency

I’m certainly no climate scientist and am not qualified to be considered an authoritative voice on the matter. This can be considered sheer speculation, but the research and the evidence correlates. We need to spread awareness and heed the warning signs. It’s there for all to see…

So please, reader, do whatever you can to spread this message far and wide, share this article wherever you can and lobby the relevant authorities to come up with a plan to manage the Kirstenbosch region and the Cape Peninsula as a whole or otherwise the consequences could be immense. The last thing our country needs right now is to take a devastating hit from mother nature…

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