Flames bring life to Cape’s fynbos

By Helen Bamford Time of article published Mar 5, 2015

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Cape Town - For many, the raging fires have left a trail of devastation. Fanned by strong southeasters the flames have engulfed homes and devoured vegetation, at times appearing unstoppable despite the heroic efforts of firefighters.

It’s been terrifying for those who have had to flee – often taking their animals with them – from what is fast becoming charred wasteland.

But fynbos experts agree that, from the plants’ point of view, it’s good news.

Table Mountain National Park regional ecologist, Carly Cowell, said the fire had been devastating and heartbreaking, but with a positive side.

“I know teachers at Bergvliet High who’ve lost homes and have no insurance – but it’s been good for the vegetation.”

Without fire, many species of fynbos on the Cape Peninsula could become extinct and the ideal time between fires is 12-15 years.

Cowell said it had been 15 years since the last big fire so the seeds had been set and the fynbos was mature.

“In a week’s time in Silvermine we will see flame lilies and all the bulbs coming up that we haven’t seen since 2002 and 2003.”

However, Cowell said the impact in the Tokai plantations may have caused some damage to indigenous seeds because pines burn a lot hotter than indigenous vegetation.

Meanwhile, although there had been wildlife casualties, Cowell said the news was not all bad.

“We’ve seen a lot of live animals coming out of burrows, like snakes and lizards, and tortoises have already laid their eggs.”

Cowell said the Tokai baboons came down and watched the firefighters battle the blaze before going back up the mountain.

“They seemed quite chilled but we are monitoring the situation.”

Johan van der Merwe, the mayoral committee member for energy, environmental and spatial planning, said the baboon troops had at this stage been unaffected by the fires.

“The four Tokai baboon troops have all been seen and appear to be fine. A detailed assessment of each individual animal will only be able to be done later in the week.”

The SPCA wildlife unit was on call to assist with rescues and treatment.

Professor Jeremy Midgley, head of the Department of Botany at UCT, agreed that from the plants’ point of view this fire would not be a problem.

“They will emerge from the ashes and in the years directly after the fire many bulb plants such as interesting orchids and colourful lilies will suddenly appear. They have been dormant in the soil waiting for cues from fires to emerge, flower and set seed.”

Midgley said fires were a normal part of the ecology of fynbos and that plants had adapted to handle fire over millions of years.

“For example, some only release their seeds from cones after fire, others have thick protective bark and others have smoke-stimulated germination.”

But he said this did not mean that every fire was a good one. “Fires can be too frequent. For example, members of the Protea family need to have enough post-fire time to mature, flower and set seed. However, most of the present fire is in mature fynbos so fire frequency is not a problem.”

Dr John Compton, associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at UCT, said that while fynbos vegetation was adapted to fire, the biggest problem was the frequency of fires which had increased from human activity.

Alien plants from Australia also added large amounts of fuel to make more intense and dangerous fires. “They also are adapted to more frequent fires and thereby have an advantage over fynbos plants, which typically only burn every 15 to 40 years.”

Compton said it would be at least three years before a significant amount of regrowth occurred.

“So, hopefully we will have light, steady rain instead of heavy downpours come winter and the soil will stay in place,” he said.

Cape Argus

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