Thoughts from South Africa

With more severe wildfires on the horizon, there is a crucial need to develop fire adaptations for communities. This means that at-risk communities must accept the notion that fire is a part of their ecological landscape and they would be best suited to adapt themselves to coexist with the reoccurrence of fire. This approach is present within countless indigenous communities, recognition and synchrony with environmental mechanisms. In the 21st context, the achievement of this reality is dependent on high government standards (such as supportive policy) and willpower at the local level to carry out fire-related actions. Current strategies of all-inclusive government protection through wildfire suppression is neither cost-effective nor sustainable for hazard reduction. Even more importantly, in the case of many underdeveloped nations, the state is unable to function in a supportive capacity and offer a semblance of civil protection. In the near future, and arguably currently, many communities in developed countries are existing with the illusion of wildfire protection, and in developing countries there is no support or framework to address the issue. 

What is community-based fire management? To me, it is the best (and most intensive) solution in improving human relationships with landscapes to alleviate wildfire threats. CBFM is based upon principles of localism, understanding and working closely in one’s area, but can be supported by global efforts. Principles of think global, act local. 

One example of CBFM was my time in Nhlazuka, KZN:

The CBFM initiative that I visited in rural KwaZulu-Natal is a collaboration of international, state, and private entities. It includes support from players such as the U.S FireWise program, South Africa’s government program Working for Water, a non-profit Landworks, and the regional Richmond Fire Protection Association. To be honest, it was not entirely clear how all of those players fit together except that the training and standards came from FireWise (U.S), project coordination came from Landworks, and local supervision from Richmond FPA. From what I could tell, the only support from the South African state were the t-shirts, but I gathered that they may provide some funding (at the maximum). All of this is important because it reinforces the idea that even initiatives rooted in localism require criteria from higher levels of governance. Landworks oversees several of these CBFM projects across the country and is the driving body behind the success. However they are reliant on the international/state funding and local systems to implement accordingly.

The communities and nations of our global society are not operating in closed systems, and neither can our approaches to handling natural hazard.

Just a quick side note - South Africa’s Working for Water (WfW) program is actually really novel and interesting, even if it is not always the best functioning system. Consistent with South Africa’s innovative (and unenforceable) Alien Clearing Act, WfW addresses environmental concerns surrounding alien species and natural resource loss. WfW functions as an expanded public works program (EPWP) to employ and benefit economically disadvantaged communities, and to remove alien vegetation (primarily Australian species) to reduce fire risk and increase groundwater accumulation. I cannot think of a single piece of legislation or government social program in the US that addresses alien species, or their connection to water loss.

The local implementation of CBFM is reliant on the governance systems that I have previously mentioned, but in Nhlazuka it also includes are more impactful framework, the local tribal government. The Umkomazi river area falls within traditional land of King Shaka of the Zulu’s. In the Nhlazuka areas, there are approximately 10,000 people that are divided into 13 sections, each under the leadership of a Zulu Headman. The 13 Headmen form the Nhlazuka Council, and the buy-in from each council member is essential to the success and legitimacy of the FireWise CBFM program. Through the program, each of the 13 areas has a designated FireWise team of 10 individuals. The FireWise committee for that area, made up of the Headman and others, identify project sites for their team and also nominate upstanding community members to be considered for team selection. The project sites are typically waterways that have become overgrown with alien vegetation (such as Black Wattle, Cyringa, Bugweed, Castor Oil plant, etc), but they may also be areas identified for grazing restoration or high fire risk areas. Personnel grooming and selection from the committee is also influential as it puts forward individuals with strong positive qualities. There are extremely few economic opportunities in these rural areas so competition for a place on a FireWise team is prevalent.

The FireWise teams themselves focus solely on wildfire prevention - fuels management and raising community awareness - and leave technical fire use and firefighting to the Working on Fire teams. While they are trained in understanding fire behavior, it is primarily to understand the importance of reducing alien fuel loads and defensible space. However, the closest Working on Fire teams to Nhlazuka are 20 miles away, so the FireWise teams are the local authority on wildfire. 

Here are some more thoughts on working in Nhlazuka, but more from an experiential point of view:

My many years playing racing arcade games could not have prepared me better for driving the roads in Zululand. Except in midst of all those lights and tickets, I was stationary and not elevating my heart rate to flow-like conditions. The Zululand roads are an experience to be had, and me with my NPS 3000 single cab saw it all: Cows, lightening, armies of school children, snakebites, drunks, and an onslaught of potholes. I loved every minute of it. In a way, me and my “bakkie” became a short-term staple of the Nhlazuka Valley. Everyone stared at us when we drove past, but after a while the stares were accompanied with waves. It felt good when I would pick up hitchers and they would know exactly where I was from and what I was doing in the valley. It felt like acceptance. I wish it could have lasted longer, but my bakkie and I had roads to travel and promises to keep. 

    In my opinion, one of the best outcomes of focusing so much of fire research during this travel year is the sense of purpose when engaging in communities and landscapes. Little of my time has been spent as a conventional tourist, and most times I am operating with a somewhat legitimate rationale for being there.

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