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A Dummy’s Guide to Starting Wildfires

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A wildfire in the making

How do wildfires start? Generally, people start them. Whether or not they do so with malicious intent is beyond me. I’m sure many do, but I’d like to think most cause them through recklessness, carelessness or downright stupidity.

What we do know for now is that the Klawer Valley-Simon’s Town wildfire that has dominated the news over the past two days caused many people immense suffering and loss because of its breach of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).

As in March, our thoughts go out to those who lost property and possessions to the fire. No matter one’s circumstances, it is a tragedy from which it takes months or years to recover and there is much that cannot be recovered at all.

A Stroll above Simon’s Town

There are many theories as to how and why wildfires begin. We know that, in the main, people living in our 3.75-million strong community start them and, short of fencing off the mountain, they will continue to threaten SANParks’s prescribed-burn fire-management policy.

We tend to perceive fire starters as arsonists or people with malicious intent.

This is not always so. Five years ago, on Sunday 17 October, 2010, I was scouting North Peak and Simonsberg for the best place for a panoramic photograph including Simon’s Town and Table Mountain.

I walked up North Peak and decided to stroll across towards Simonsberg for a better angle. At 09:40, I noticed something that astonished me and so took the above shot. Armed with a Nikon D60 with a kit lens and a Canon S3 IS point and shoot, I realised the image would not show much on enlargement.

However, you can perhaps make out what I noticed on the marked image.

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All it takes is a spark

No? I realised it was pretty pointless trying to capture what I was seeing, so I took out my trusty S3 IS and, while it offered only 172 mm, I had an extender doubling up on its reach.

Starting Wildfires …

Below North Peak, on the Klawer Valley side of the mountain, a seemingly agitated chap was building a large fire on a rock surrounded by extremely dense, head-high fynbos.

Bizarrely, he was not intentionally setting fire to the surrounding vegetation but, such was the size of the inferno, it might have – at any moment – set the mountain ablaze. It was so large it obscured the person building it.

A close crop of the above shot doesn’t show him clearly and I wanted a capture rendering him identifiable.

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Is it a rock? Is it a fire? Well, if it moves like a fire …

Being October, the weather was mild and, fortunately, there was little wind.

Young, but of indeterminate age, the fire starter was performing a ritual of sorts. He stripped himself of his shirt and, having built his fire, hopped restlessly around the rock, climbed off it and disappeared into the fynbos before reappearing.

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… then it probably is a fire

Checking all available routes off the mountain (in case the fire set the vegetation alight), I sat down and waited to get a decent shot of him while watching the fire. Completing his ritualistic antics on the rock, and with the blaze roaring away at the foot of the rock, my mountain companion did something that convinced me he was not ‘in his right mind’.

He climbed to a place near the top of the rock and seated himself with his back to the fire – for close to half an hour. The accompanying crop is the only decent shot I was able to get of him.

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“He climbed to a place near the top of the rock and seated himself with his back to the fire – for close on half an hour.”

I gave up on any ideas of further panoramas of Simon’s Town and, in a strange way, joined my fire starter – from a distance – in whatever it was he was doing. The difference between us was that I was watching the blaze die down as he continued to ignore it.

Suddenly, after half an hour – with the fire still burning – he left, and disappeared into the fynbos.

… Without Thought of their Possible Consequences

Not being one to call a hike a hike (I prefer to walk or stroll), I descended the ridge and wandered through the impossibly difficult vegetation towards the remains of the fire. Lacking a panga or machete – and trying to approach it from a direction opposite to that taken by my pyromaniacal companion, it was a more-than-daunting task.

Fynbos is pretty unprepossessing vegetation. To the naked eye, it does not intimidate or inspire. It looks ‘easy’. Yesterday, many might have wondered at pronouncements by our City and SANParks’ fire and wildfire authorities that the terrain was ‘difficult’ for wildfire firefighters.

Years of walking our mountains tells me that it is sometimes not only ‘difficult’, but ‘impassable’.

I eventually walked back up to the ridge and, convinced that the fire was well and truly out (I could see no sign of it), left North Peak as a strong southeasterly took hold.

I’ve often wondered about that chap and his state of mind. From my position (and, before the shot is taken, the eye sees much more through the lens than in the resulting image), he had no malice and no intention of setting the mountain or Simon’s Town alight.

But he might have – on the morning of 17 October 2010.

Between a Rock and a Hard Life

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A different perspective

Coming from a family that has produced its fair share of doctors, scientists and dropouts, I would like to view my friend’s behaviour as schizotypal. In short, while his reality and mine are incompatible, I can understand that, in his view (perhaps), he was not doing anything reckless or wrong.

But Occam’s Razor tells me a different story. With the sun having exposed the rock on, under or around which my mountain companion had spent the night, he was extremely cold. Having warmed himself as much as possible through a makeshift calisthenic routine, he proceeded – without thought for the surrounding vegetation – to build a fire to warm himself. Sufficiently enlivened, he basked in the sun for half an hour before (for all I know), heading down into Simon’s Town to do whatever it was he intended doing.

It was, therefore, Occam’s Razor that stopped me approaching him directly. The possibility that any razor or knife he might have carried would do more physical damage than would any appeal to reason precluded early morning chit-chat and lighthearted but cautionary banter.

We live in a city of 3.75 million people. It is one of the most unequal cities in the world. Increasingly, people are turning to our mountains for refuge. We face more than a threat of wildfire.

So, in part, my thesis holds. While my young friend’s “… reality and mine are incompatible, I can understand that, in his view (perhaps), he was not doing anything reckless or wrong.”

Nevertheless, I believe he belongs to those we might term the dumb and dangerous. They need no guide to starting wildfires. Short-term self-interest and immediate necessities dictate their actions.

Be careful out there.

Fire manager for Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) Philip Prins said on Friday morning experienced investigators had conducted a preliminary investigation and now suspected arson.

TMNP was now awaiting a full report. Firefighters were monitoring the area for flare-ups on Friday morning.

Prins said 60 vegetation fires from Simon’s Town to Atlantis on Thursday burnt about 300 hectares of fynbos and other vegetation.

IOL

A great post (short, sombre, stunned) on the Simon’s Town Fire from Liz Hardman of Nature’s Edge. Liz points to some shattering images from Justin Sullivan.

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