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Invasive plant species a major concern after Lourensford, Somerset West fires

Concerns have been raised about the role invasive plant species have played in the rapid spread of the fires in Table View, Somerset West, Stellenbosch and Helderberg over the past week – especially the Lourensford fire. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Concerns have been raised about the role invasive plant species have played in the rapid spread of the fires in Table View, Somerset West, Stellenbosch and Helderberg over the past week – especially the Lourensford fire. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jun 17, 2022

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Cape Town - The devastating fires in Table View, Somerset West, Stellenbosch and Helderberg over the past week raised numerous concerns about the role invasive plant species may have played in the rapid spread of these fires.

An especially prominent concern was the Lourensford fire, which spread to Helderberg Nature Reserve and destroyed many homes and properties while causing significant environmental damage.

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Western Cape Environmental Affairs spokesperson Andricus van der Westhuizen said the impact of alien invasive plants on the environment had yet again come to the forefront following these fires across the Western Cape and that he would be writing to Environmental Affairs MEC Anton Bredell to request details on the province’s ongoing efforts to eliminate alien invasive plant species.

As a result of the fire, deputy mayor and spatial planning and environment Mayco member Eddie Andrews said the Helderberg Nature Reserve would remain closed for the next month to allow the biodiversity team an opportunity to assess the damage and determine which reinstatement measures were required.

Comments made by a group of ecologists and other scientists from Friends of Tokai Park in April this year, during the public participation process for the City’s draft urban forest policy, were an almost biblical prediction of the fire that took place in Helderberg.

The group submitted a series of comments for this policy that related to the importance of protecting the habitat for fynbos types and species, and highlighting the lack of mention of vegetation fires in the policy.

Lead author Guy Preston said: “There remain extraordinary risks from fire due to inappropriate management of fire-prone species by the City.

“An example would be the public open space at Silver Tree Gorge in Somerset West – a heavily invaded area susceptible to a fire, driven by a south-eastern wind, rushing up the steep gorge and being potentially impossible for our firefighting capacities to control.”

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The document by the scientists said a fire on this City-owned land was inevitable at some point and the likely damage to the adjacent high-value properties along Silverboomkloof Road and beyond could be hugely expensive for the City’s ratepayers in terms of the provisions of the regulations of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act.

City Fire and Rescue spokesperson Jermain Carelse said several homes were gutted in Silverboomkloof Road on Sunday, June 12 when the fire, that started on the slopes of Lourensford on Wednesday, June 8, picked up again and spread as result of strong winds.

In their comments, the scientists mentioned how multiple fires in Cape Town, and their resulting damage, over the years could have been or were exacerbated by invasive species growing in their vicinities, and the refusal to address the risks of fire-prone species on the urban edge by the City.

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