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Rebelo Slams Blanket Fire Suppression

SANBI Restoration Ecologist Dr Tony Rebelo slams VWS blanket fire suppression policy
VWS’s Patrick Ryan tackles SANBI Restoration Ecologist Dr Tony Rebelo for slamming the voluntary wildfire firefighting organisation’s blanket fire-suppression policy.

Well, yes, and why not? It’s a no brainer. Everybody knows Dr Tony Rebelo as South Africa’s preeminent fynbos restoration ecologist and Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) to be our thin yellow line separating fynbos from fire.

All too obviously, one of our leading scientists and VWS share common purpose – the preservation of our fynbos biome, biodiversity and the protection of our water catchment areas. Besides, Tony Rebelo is a member of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (Table Mountain Region), one of the beneficiaries of profits realised from sales of The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire. VWS is another.

It’s a marriage made in Heaven.

Or is it? That which may be obvious to some might present as being more complex to others.

While scientists frequently reach consensus (as in 97% of climate scientists who accept global warming agreeing on the reality of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, or ACD), their primary task is to question convention and their own and others’ thinking. Generally, consensus is not their ‘thing’.

In the Fynbos Biome, as a prominent VWS source put it, scientists are our ‘ecolectuals’.

Tony Rebelo is a scientist.

So when he poses a question based on a VWS policy statement made on The Cape Aflame website, it warrants an answer. In promoting the acquisition and study of The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire, he asks:

“Should all conservationists regard VWS as a primary enemy?”

Not quite the best question to launch a lifelong relationship of wedded bliss.

Rebelo is questioning the statement initially used to promote VWS on The Cape Aflame site:

“VWS’s primary objectives are to suppress wildfire, preserve our fragile biodiversity and protect our water catchment areas.”

Read it, think about it and ask yourself why Rebelo’s is a good question.

Even should you know that VWS says of itself on its website – at the outset:

The Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) have been combating dangerous and often deadly runaway fires since being baptised through the devastating fires in 1999/2000 in Cape Town.

That Tony Rebelo is questioning the precision, meaning and implications of a standalone statement on iSpot, a global forum frequented by ecologists, botanists, biologists, entomologists, conservationists and every natural science-related discipline known to humans, is beside the point.

The point, to this reader’s mind, is that he is posing, as any scientist should, a pertinent question.

The Web allows us a platform to find (or formulate for ourselves) considered answers to such questions. It is an anarchic environment. Anything goes – and usually does. Getting to an answer can be a messy process. It was so in this instance.

We were sidetracked. The Web opens any statement or question to interpretation and response by many people – not all as disciplined in their disciplines as Tony Rebelo – and they were swift to crawl out of the woodwork.

Beetledude responded:

I am not buying one of their books. The straws that broke this camel’s back were when I read on their website …

• that the book offers “Insight into our fragile Fynbos Biome and why we fight wildfire”
• about “The unity of spirit that swept Cape Town during March 2015 to turn the tide on a colossal force of Nature”
• “Somewhere amongst the burning trees we could hear the screams of baboons.”

This wasn’t exactly (I assume) the answer Rebelo was looking for. As the uneducated lay author of the book, which couldn’t possibly have been read as it’s at the printers, Beetledude’s response perplexed me. I sought clarification:

That an entomologist I assume to be interested in maintaining biodiversity would not buy a book – of which a large percentage of the cover price goes to organisations dedicated to protecting and promoting that biodiversity – based on three promotional phrases quoted out of context, boggles my possibly ill-informed or perhaps stunted mind.

[…]

That you are able to decide “I am not buying one of their books” based on three bulleted fragments strikes me as peculiar. Perhaps my incomprehension of peculiarity is misinformed or uninformed. As someone who gave up on newspapers in the 1980s and didn’t bother with “uni”, I see no reason why the three quoted statements should break your sizeable and extremely broad camel’s back.

[…]

I’d really be most grateful if you’d explain to me why the statements you say decided you against buying the book elicited such a strong reaction from you. I’m being sincere about this. I want to know. Teach me something.

Beetledude was not up to the challenge and scuttled off. Richard Adcock, also not too interested in answering Rebelo’s intriguing question and also not being ‘into’ educating me, was quick to take up cudgels on our entomologist’s behalf:

“I hope iSpotters, real conservationists and the thinking public will ignore this book and see through its shallow appeal of glamorous drama and sentiment. Rather spend your R375 on visiting the burned fynbos areas and treat yourself to the magic that is unfolding.” … “What should follow from the opportunity this fire presents is a long term thorough documentation of the succession of the flora and fauna. Now that would be a publication I would buy and the public would gain an understanding of the critical role that fire plays. … The latter option will probably never happen, sentiment trumps reality every time.”

Compounding Beetledude’s error of evading Rebelo’s promotion of a book, the website of which included a policy statement worth questioning, Richard dismisses The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire as holding only the “… shallow appeal of glamorous drama and sentiment.”

In asking the “thinking public” (I assume he includes himself in that august body) to “ignore this book”, he dismisses the general public (of which I am a member) as dumb. He states as much:

“… sentiment trumps reality every time.”

Naturally, being dumb, the reader of this blog may ask stupid questions, such as:

  • Why do these people not answer Rebelo’s question?
  • Why, without any knowledge of its content, launch an attack on a book seeking to benefit organisations pursuing ostensibly common objectives?
  • Why state that, among the general public (susceptible to the “… shallow appeal of glamorous drama and sentiment, … sentiment trumps reality every time”?

Irritated by these evasions of a reasonable question as well as the denigration of an unknown work and laypeople in general, I responded to Richard with some vehemence:

If, without substantiation, you dismiss the advocacy and activism of laypeople as the “shallow appeal of glamorous drama and sentiment”, so be it. Blind cynicism doesn’t cut it as criticism.

Two members of Beetledude’s “thinking public” (ignoring unsubstantiated claims, the writing off of the public as dumb and evasion of the initial question) took offence at such an onslaught on their sensibilities, found my contribution to the exchange “distasteful” (as opposed to “tasteless”) and asked Rebelo, as moderator of the site, to remove the post.

The moderator, his smiling visage dominating the uber-serious gravatars of participants to an exchange not addressing his question, was quick to respond.

“well I am buying a copy!!” he stated emphatically.

Even if VWS is Fynbos’s mortal enemy, this book is

1: a good cause
2: a statement of the current state of affairs
3: great memorabilia
4: filled with views from all sides
5: an opportunity to see where education and effort is required

I fully support it.

Which is great.

But where had Tony been as the above sideshow unfolded? I assume he was enjoying the folly of fools. It made for good entertainment and, besides, he now had opportunity to state his central thesis:

“… VWS is Fynbos’s mortal enemy”

And that is his thesis. The statement is preceded by “Even if …”. He has made up his mind. Had he not done so, he would have said “Even should VWS be Fynbos’s mortal enemy …”.

I spelled out to those conflating The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire with their unquestioning acceptance of the above statement my reason for taking them to task:

“In my above posts, I seek clarification for what I assume to be baseless, specious and condemnatory assumptions about a work intended to further goals we share. As the book has not been published, condemnation of it can only be grounded in a reading of copy designed to engage rather than alienate a general readership (of which I am a part).”

As somebody once noted, “You cannot reason with passion.”

I let it be known to The Cape Aflame Project Team that minds infinitely greater than our own were trashing our as-yet-to-be-published book on “Rebelo’s site”.

The response can best be summed up as: “Ho hum.”

As a project team, we (by consensus) do not seek controversy. We are neutral. HTML5 pacifists, so to speak.

I’m all for neutrality but, if controversy comes a ‘courting, I’m not going to shy away from it. As an old hand on the Great World Wide InterWebz, I’m of the well-founded opinion that silence is more often suicidal on the Net than it is wise in the real world.

I dropped a question of my own to the project team:

“So, if Tony Rebelo declares VWS the mortal enemy of fynbos, that’s okay?”

Enter, onto Tony’s site and in his personal capacity, former VWS Marketing Director and Curator of The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire, Patrick Ryan.

The result was a reasonable discussion of Tony’s question.

Slamming the book’s detractors while distancing VWS and SHR (TMR) from its content, Ryan understandably misconstrues Rebelo’s quotation from the website, his statement and his resulting question as a statement of fact rather than a logical conclusion drawn from available material.

His natural instinct is to defend VWS from the insinuation that it might be an enemy of fynbos and he does this in detail, with reference to (among others) Forsyth and Bridgett’s Table Mountain National Park Fire Management Plan (CSIR 2004) and the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, Act 101 of 1998.

Patrick, using legislation to back his defence of VWS (which has yet to be found guilty of anything), details the need for an integrated approach to managing wildfire in the interest of maintaining biodiversity on the Wildland Urban Interface.

He does not, however, address Tony’s central concern, the statement of VWS’s primary objectives on The Cape Aflame website at the time:

“VWS’s primary objectives are to suppress wildfire …”

… and Tony is quick to respond – hammering out an answer articulating his stance that as long as this remains a primary objective of VWS …:

… “I am afraid: any organization that claims to put out all fires at all costs is an enemy of Fynbos! So long as they have this aim, then I am fully in support of starving them of support and letting them go extinct. Fire has been around since the dinosaurs. Any organization is a trilobyte of an age that has passed and should be encouraged to go extinct.”

When they change their aim from fire suppression to fuel-load reduction with ecological focus (i.e. fires in summer and autumn), then they will get my full support. Until then they are not green (in fact, RED), unecological, and a primary cause of extinction of Fynbos. I would rather support the arsonists!!

I like the book for its views! And if it contributes to a more balanced and ecological view of fire by this body, and a rethink of fires as bad, or needing to be put out, or as needing to be “controlled” or “prescribed” (versus wild and unnatural and man-made), THEN I will support them. The fact that they are volunteers or professional is irrelevant. And if the volunteers are doing hard work, and risking life and limbs unnecessarily only makes it worse: it does the very opposite of legitimizing or excusing the organization. All that risk utterly unnecessarily? It is insane! We need to work with nature, not against her!!

What really gets my goat is that we have been here before. We are repeating the 1960s discoveries that led to fire management of the 1970s with well-trained fire managers who did huge block burns (admittedly to protect an uneconomical plantation industry). How many more times will we have to relearn the same lesson!!

Hopefully the Cape Aflame will mean in the next cycle of relearning this (in two generations time – about 2050) there will be a better popular literature to look back on and the learning process can be sped up. Perhaps we can stop the management from swinging so low as to ever again contemplate the need to totally suppress fires, rather than to manipulate them ecologically.

Of course, all this is driven by legislation written by people who do not understand ecology (and the fact that 60% of our ecosystems in South Africa are fire climax systems – they not only burn, they MUST burn). Should ecologists not rebel against this bad legislation in the same way that activists did the Apartheid legislation? Arguably this legislation is just as inappropriate to the country?

Bam! Hey, I admire the guy. He knows how to use the Web and he knows how to set up an argument. More, he knows exactly what he’s speaking about.

What do I mean by “… knows how to use the Web and he knows how to set up an argument”?

First, you put up some bait on the Web – a provocative statement open to interpretation, misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Then, you wait. Passions rise. Finally, as soon as somebody comes close to addressing your provocation, you hit them with the full weight of your argument.

In other words, you put up a straw man where no argument exists and, when that straw man is tackled, you make your point.

Should you appeal to reason, you cannot be rebutted.

Rebelo’s argument is not with VWS per se, but with current legislation and any person or entity following the ‘letter’ rather than the ‘spirit’ of the law. His argument is with the statement rather than any known or alleged action by VWS. If VWS’s primary objective is to suppress “… dangerous and often deadly runaway” wildfires, why does the organisation not say so?

We (Patrick and I) agreed that the VWS policy statement on our website should be changed to reflect reality, viz:

VWS’s primary objectives are to manage, contain or suppress wildfire where and when necessary, preserve our fragile biodiversity and protect our water catchment areas.

The Cape Aflame Project knows this to be true and fully supports VWS. It is also in line with the VWS Governing Policy Mission Statement:

Members of the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) are committed to giving freely of their time and skills to assist with the control and suppression of wildfires, with the view to:
• protect the biodiversity of the natural environment
• protect critical water catchment areas

Umm…ambiguous but, by and large, we’d at long last given Tony the answer to his question:

“Should all conservationists regard VWS as a primary enemy?”

“No.”

Would (or should) that satisfy Tony?

No, of course it wouldn’t – and shouldn’t. VWS Governing Policy still, at Section 2.1 states its Main Objective to be the:

“Suppression of Wild Fires, Preservation of Biodiversity and Protection of Critical Water Catchment areas.”

VWS’s objective(s) is/are at odds with its Mission Statement (which is, at best, woolly) and the policy statement now on The Cape Aflame website. The suppression of wildfire that is benign does not preserve biodiversity. For as long as that discrepancy persists in VWS Governing Policy documents, ecologists are going to wonder what the hell VWS’ members think its objectives are.

For now, they can only be taken as read. Rebelo elaborates:

So long as this is an objective, I cannot support VWS. Remember wildfire = natural fire. And from an ecological point of view the cause of a fire is irrelevant: all that matters is the season (80-90%* of veld area burned must be in summer or autumn), the veld age (80-90%* of veld area burned should be between 5 and 30 years) and a few other relatively minor variables, of which – if aliens are present or have been cleared – fire heat loading on the soil is the most important.

* Some argue 95%

Patrick Ryan responds (and this can be interpreted as you wish):

“Noted, thank you. Thank you though for your support of the book.”

As in life, some things are more welcome than others. And some questions have more than one answer, as in “Yes and no. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.”

But one cannot deny that, for a Web audience, it remains a damned good question. Words matter. The only thing that matters more is the context in which they are framed, placed, found or interpreted. And, when educating ourselves and others in maintaining biodiversity, clarity is essential.

We tend to forget these things on the Web as often as we do in life – and need people like Tony Rebelo to remind us of their value.

Note: For those interested in informing themselves of Dr Rebelo’s views on biodersity and the city, the following paper makes for a great read.

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