Fire Disasters: Impact on Provincial Economies; Review of Fire Legislation; Working on Fire Programme

Water and Sanitation

30 May 2006
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Meeting report

WATER AFFAIRS AND FORESTRY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE


31 May 2006
FIRE DISASTERS: IMPACT ON PROVINCIAL ECONOMIES; REVIEW OF FIRE LEGISLATION; WORKING ON FIRE PROGRAMME

Chairperson:
Ms C September (ANC)

Documents handed out:

Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) Institutional Responsibilities presentation
Working on Fire Programme: Number of Current Employees
Estimated Fire Damage Costs
Friends of the Forest: Fire Awareness Programme activity booklet
Working on Fire Programme: Mid-Term Review April 2003 - September 2005 Report
[email
info@pmg.org.za for document]
National Veld and Forest Fire Act, No 101 of 1998
Relevant website:
www.workingonfire.org

SUMMARY
The Committee was briefed by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry on the impact of fire disasters on provincial economies, and provided with a review of fire-related legislation. The 35 000 hectares of vegetation burned last year amounted to a loss of R700 million to growers and R3 billion to the industry. The average annual cost of fire damage was around R4.3 billion. There were a number of causes, but about 80% of fires were caused by human action. Officials suggested re-looking at the National Veld and Forest Fire Act and several other related pieces of legislation, and further partnerships between business and government.

Working on Fire then reported on its positive operational delivery and returns on investment. They felt officials needed to enforce legislation more, and landowners and government should take greater control over land in their custody.

The Committee’s concerns and questions were wide-ranging. Among others, Members raised issues of improving interdepartmental collaboration; conducting fire awareness and education in communities; further involving landowners and other stakeholders; and increasing for effective Fire Prevention Associations.

MINUTES
Mr Winston Smit, Director of Commercial Forestry, gave an assessment of the impact of fire disasters on provincial economies and a review of fire-related legislation. Fires over the last year had been devastating, with approximately 35 000 commercial hectares burnt last year. A total of 124 000 hectares had been ravaged by fire. This amount excluded the Free State as that province’s report would only be available at the end of June. The figures in previous years had been similar.

Mr Smit stated that these fires impacted all spheres directly and indirectly, both in terms of the economy and the environment. From an economic standpoint, damage was relatively easy to quantify. However, it was not without its difficulties as there were numerous variables and many companies were not keen to make such information available due to litigation, insurance claims and the like. Economic loss could generally be calculated in terms of loss to the grower and loss to the industry. The 35 000 hectares damaged calculated into a loss of R700 million to the growers and R3 billion to the industry, and affected sustainability.

On the causes of these fires, Mr Smit said that there were a number of reasons, but the main problem was human action. One would have to look to legislation, particularly the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, and partnerships with business and government to prevent such fires.

Mr MpakaTau, DWAF Forestry Regulation Department, said that his division dealt with the implementation of that Act. Various Acts relating to fires were aligned to the National Veld and Forestry (NVFF) Act and were complementary. There was ambit within the Disaster Management Act for work regarding fires. The FDA’s work with municipalities was to see that municipalities included the same in their Integrated Development Plans (IDP). There was a close relationship between the municipalities and the Department.

The Fire Brigade Services Act was complimentary to the NVFF Act as the Chief Fire Officers appointed in terms of the Fire Brigade Act were Fire Protection Association Officers (FPAOs) of Fire Protection Associations (FPAs). There was no conflict between the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act and the NVFF Act. The Mountain Catchment Areas Act was not just an ‘urgency charter’ – veldfire management could be carried out in terms of the provisions of this Act.

Mr Tau felt that the NVFF Act was not the legislation for emergency management of wild fires, but rather a statute of legal instruments that enabled and promoted integrated veldfire management. It was proactive rather than reactive in nature, and also dealt with prevention.

Mr Tau stated that in terms of Chapter 3 of the NVFF Act, the Department was required to develop a Fire Protection Association Registration Management System (FPARMS) to record all registered fire protection associations.

Mr Tau said that the Department was required, in terms of Chapter 2, to provide support and promote the formation of FPAs, assisting them with the formation of their constitutions, formulating business plans, and developing guidelines and strategies for FPAs. This work was being carried out by the Department’s regional offices. Applications by FPAs were facilitated by regional offices, then forwarded to the national office for checking. Upon compliance, a certificate was issued to the FPA by the national office. The Department was also responsible for the monitoring and evaluation of such FPAs. Exactly 64 FPAs had been registered by 30 May 2006. A schedule of such associations, together with contact numbers, was furnished to the Committee.

Turning to the Fire Danger Rating dealt with in Chapter 3 of the Act, Mr Tau said that the Minister was required to communicate the fire danger ratings, publish warnings and ensure that records were kept. A study had been done to choose an appropriate system for South Africa – the United States system had been chosen. The National Fire Danger Rating System’s powers and duties had been delegated by the Minister to SA Weather Services (or its successor).

The Department was in the process of rolling out the policy on law compliance and enforcement in terms of Chapter 5 of the Act. With regards to Chapter 6, the Forestry Amendment Act had been promulgated last year. There would be assignment of powers and duties to FPAOs.

With regards to communication of the Act, the system was not ‘live’ yet as they were still addressing two problems. The Department had commenced distributing CD’s containing all material on the Act yesterday and a quarterly veldfire bulletin was currently being produced.

Working on Fire
Mr Johan Heine, General Manager: Working on Fire, presented a CD produced by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). He reported that the average cost per year of fire damage was around R4.3 billion.

Dr Guy Preston, Co-chairperson of Working on Fire and National Programme Leader for Working for Water, felt that Working on Fire had the best working programme in terms of operational delivery and returns on investment were good. However, the value of jobs lost through fires was difficult to calculate and needed to be addressed. He reiterated that officials needed to enforce legislation. Landowners and government should take greater control over land in their custody (such as fire breaks, invasive alien plants etc) and to look into more effective legislation.

Discussion
Mr Arendse (ANC) raised the following questions:
- On the issue of suppression and prevention of fires current competency, what mechanisms were in place for all three spheres of government to work together?
- Were there any statistics on the percentage of fires caused naturally and by humans?
- With regards to the agricultural controlled burns, were these monitored? How often did they slip of control and who would be liable in such event?
- What were the enforcement strategies in terms of the legislation?
- How many associations needed to be established, and why the process was taking so long?

Ms Maine (ANC) enquired whether there were any policies regarding cross-border fires, and whether there had been any such cases.

Mr Disthetelo (UCDP) raised three questions:
- Why all provinces had not been listed in terms of the classification?
- how effectively were state departments working together?
- was there any assistance to indigent farmers, in compliance with the requirements of the Act?

Mr Sibuyana (IFP) raised the following queries:
- were there enough firebreaks in plantations?
- was the R2 million set aside for communication sufficient to cover areas concerned?
- what prevention measures were being taken?
- how many countries had been considered before the implementation of the National Fire Danger Rating System? Why had it not been possible to engage the Members and Minister on this system first?

Ms Manana (ANC) enquired about the timeframe of implementation of the communication strategy. She further enquired about the role played by the Mpumalanga Department of Education. She lastly pointed out that WOF had not raised the issue of their budget, and enquired from where their finances derived, whether these were sufficient.

Ms Sigcau (UDM) enquired which province was most frequently affected by fire and the causes thereof.

Ms Van der Walt (DA) said that Chapter 4 was incomplete in that government was not held accountable and responsible; the emphasis being focused solely on the landowners. No room having been made for municipalities and and provincial government to play their part. She also asked the reason that, when Limpopo was one of the major risk areas, there was only one FDA.

Ms September stated that one did not get a sense of a national task team from the presentations. The Act also did not seem to adopt an inclusive approach, and enquired about the impact of this on the overall economy. The Committee was concerned as provinces appeared to have deprioritised this issue. One could not implement the Act if the resources were not in place.

Ms September further stated that the Committee was concerned that the Department was still going to develop policies after the Act had been in effect for ten years. When could the Committee expect to hear from the Department on this? She also enquired about the nature of the problems experienced in the National Fire Danger Rating System.

She suggested further that the CD be furnished to all Members of Parliament as they could communicate to their constituencies. She enquired about whether it was possible to get a list of telephone numbers of local contact persons, and asked how the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) could assist in this regard. She requested the Department to advise whether the Department of Provincial and Local Government (DPLG) had deployed the Act sufficiently.

Ms September then enquired how WOF envisaged approaching Chapter 4 of the Act. She asked whether they had approached NEDLAC or whether they used another vehicle to deal with same. She did not get a sense of how they were attending to enforcement and whether it conflicted with any other Act.

Mr Tau said that the Director-General (D-G) had approved the enforcement and compliance strategy. An enforcement strategy was a work in process and workshops were being done in regions on policies, involving FPAs. The implementation of the strategy did not necessarily imply that no enforcement had commenced. Posters had been displayed and regulations were in place. The strategy would assist in ensuring that prosecutions took place.

Mr Tau continued that a study had been undertaken two years ago in terms of which 280 - 282 FPAs had been recommended. However, some provinces had recommended more than estimated and so he foresaw more FPAs than originally recommended. The difficulties experienced in FPAs were primarily as a result of the fact that these were voluntary associations and were accordingly dependant on landowners becoming involved. However, in terms of 3.3 of the Act, the Minister could inform landowners about the provisions of the Act. They were currently undertaking such measures in this regard.

On the issue of cross-border fires, Mr Tau said that they were currently engaging neighbouring countries and initiating bilateral co-operation with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

With regards to teamwork of stakeholders, Mr Tau said that the Act compelled all state organs to be part of FPAs where they were formed. The D-G had written letters to all provinces in this regard, although problems had been experienced with Transnet and the National Roads Agency.

With regards to the effectiveness of the FPAs, Mr Tau said that the Department was required to do assessments on an annual basis. Eight assessments had been completed last year, and this year the Department was targeting the high-risk area FPAs. From last year, they had established that problems experienced by FPAs related to funding and resources. The Act required landowners to put measures in place and that assistance from the Department was a complimentary measure. To this end, the Department had assisted FPAs with resources and equipment. They would be meeting to finalise the financial assistance policy at an enforcement workshop on 20 and 21 June 2006. He anticipated that the financial assistance policy would be approved in August this year.

Mr Ntamba said collaboration between the different spheres of government took place at different levels. There was ongoing interaction with municipalities, especially in ‘hot spot’ areas. FPAs consisted of landowners. It was necessary to ensure collaborative teamwork and to have formal mechanisms with various spheres of government.

On the issue of cross-border agreements, Mr Ntamba said that they had held an FPA meeting in Mozambique and entered into discussions with Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana. Target dates had been set to explore agreements. They were hoping to have agreements in place by the end of the year.

Mr Ntamba assured that assistance would be given to indigent farmers. The Department took responsibility for such farmers in order to ensure compliance with the Act. Programmes targeted at enhancing effectiveness of FPAs were necessary.

Mr Mandla said they were not only involved with fire suppression, but also with fire awareness and community prevention and management. Regarding fire-breaks, there were directions in the Act on this issue on when they should be cut. With regards to field reduction and slashing of areas, high fuel areas had been identified for such purposes.

Mr Heine said that problems had been experienced with the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture. On a provincial level, there was interaction with the Department of Agriculture, but this was problematic on a national level. He thus requested the assistance of the Committee in establishing better relationships.

Mr Heine said 80% of fires were caused by humans. With regards to prescribed burning, the best way to encourage landowners was through the threat of third party damage litigation. The enforcement policy was being handled by Department and had not been addressed by WOF.

With regards to FPAs, Mr Heine felt that assistance formed part of their budget. Financial assistance could be misappropriated, so FPAs were supplied with dispatchers and dispatcher training. They tried to make teams available to assist FPAs at discounted rates and through the charging of no fees to members. However, they did experience personnel shortages. Another problem was the lack of FPA fire experience, and so financial assistance for training was required.

With regard to neighbouring countries, they had been invited twice to Namibia to advise on the WOF programme. They had a good relationship with Botswana, undertaking research programmes and demonstrations within this country. In Swaziland, they had assisted with plantations. However, the main problem encountered was with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the bureaucratic red tape, with agreements being a prerequisite to any international assistance.

As regards the statistics, Mr Heine said that the other provinces had not been included due to the short notification of the meeting and insufficient time to collect the necessary data. Although these regions did experience fires, this was not to the same extent.

Some FPAs were effective and others were not. The principles used in the effective ones were to be duplicated in the ineffective FPAs, but the questions arose of costs and manpower for training. FPAs were provided with resources, training and equipment, but not finances.

Mr Heine then turned to the issue of firebreaks and said that this was a communication function. It would be difficult and costly to enforce this provision of the Act and thus it was necessary to instil a ‘culture of firebreaks’. Fire-breaks provided safe escape routes but could not prevent disastrous fires.

The National Fire Danger Rating System was followed by Department with the assistance of experts and workshops. They had considered models from SA, Canada, America and Australia. The challenge now faced was implementation.

Mr Heine said they had good teams in Limpopo. Dr Preston had been advocating for a national task team for years as many issues could be addressed by such a team.

With regards to landowners’ responsibility, it was preferable not to place any responsibility on government as this would affect resourcing and funding requirements. The conflict with the Municipal Structures Act had thus been addressed and the Act had been redrafted.

Mr Tau said an analysis had been undertaken of what the Department would be able to do with the R2 million allocated in this year. R2 million was estimated to be sufficient but they left the door open for further motivation if they need additional funding.

On the National Fire Danger Rating System, Mr Tau said that the system had been tested in November, but some of the variables had not been programmed properly. They were now awaiting advice from the experts in the US to resolve these problems.

Mr Tau turned to the issue of Chapter 4 and said that this did bind municipalities and the National Roads Agency, who were required to prepare fire-breaks in terms of the Act. On the Limpopo issue, they were actually trying to push for the increase of FPAs. This was one of their priorities.

The DPLG formed part of Inter-Departmental Disaster Management Committee (IDMC) that sits at the DPLG offices and was chaired by the head of the Disaster Management Centre. Mr Tau said that the DPLG supported the implementation of the Act and had provided financial assistance.

Mr Ntamba said that meetings with respective stakeholders would be held and they would report back to Members.

Dr Preston stated that bureaucratic red tape was causing unnecessary delays and it was essential for intergovernmental agreements to be in place. They needed to work on ‘umbrella FPAs’ as these were most cost-effective. To this end, agreements at national level were required and involvement on a national level was a necessity. They also required greater capacity – they currently had 1 100 members but would need 1 500. Alignment and good relations with district and local authorities was also essential. He was of the view that R2 million was insufficient and they needed more co-operative government to ensure sustainability and effectiveness. Salaries were included in the budget but that these were reasonable

Ms Val Charlton, Advocacy and Awareness: Working on Fire, said that, with regards to Mpumalanga, there were partnerships with the Department of Education, and that they were building on work done by SAPPI. This was moving into KwaZulu-Natal and the modules were being brought into the curriculum. They had projects in place for educating the community and scholars, and tried to reach target audiences. They had undertaken to place regional community and liaison officers but that this was subject to financial constraints.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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