WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PREVENTION AND SUPPRESSION OF WILDFIRES ON LAND UNDER YOUR CONTROL
Wildfires are a regular occurrence in South Africa. Every year during the fire season the news contains stories of wildfires sweeping through the country.
The impacts of wildfires are many:
- Wildfires destroy croplands, grazing, forests and homes. This leads to great financial losses, especially for people who do not have insurance.
- Wildfires cause hardship. This can vary from the death and the displacement of people to the loss of personal possessions that cannot be replaced and the loss of jobs.
- Although fires are a necessary part of the natural cycle of life, if they are uncontrolled or occur too frequently they damage biological diversity.
- Wildfires lead to the faster run-off of water. This increases the intensity of floods and also causes soil erosion.
- Wildfires cause air pollution.
Further resources dealing with the impact of fire, and particularly its impact on biodiversity are available by clicking here.
HOW DOES THE LAW DEAL WITH WILDFIRES?
- In order to limit the damage caused by fire, the law sets out a number of prevention measures that people must adopt to avoid a wildfire. The main aspects of these measures include the following:
- The law provides for the establishment of Fire Protection Associations;
- The law provides for the establishment of a system of rating and warning people of the risk of wildfires.
- The law sets out the duties that people have to suppress a wildfire once it is already burning (see below).
- The law provides for fines or imprisonment of people who do not adequately prevent or suppress wildfires
- The law also provides for people to pay for the damages that result from a wildfire if they have not taken adequate steps to prevent or suppress a wildfire.
- Insurance companies may start to reject claims from people who have suffered damages from a wildfire if they did not taken adequate steps to prevent or suppress the fire
WHAT ARE THE LEGAL DUTIES REGARDING WILDFIRE PREVENTION?
- You may not start a wild fire.
- You may only start a fire, including a cooking or braai fire, in a designated area.
- Every landowner must have equipment available to fight wildfires.
- Every landowner must have trained personnel available to fight wildfires.
- Every landowner must have a person on their property who keeps a lookout for fires.
- Every landowner must establish a system of firebreaks.
- A landowner may not burn firebreaks or carry out controlled burns when the Fire Danger Rating is high.
WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS FOR FIRE BREAKS?
- Every property must have a system of firebreaks in place.
- The firebreaks must be on the boundary of the property unless there is an exemption granted by the Minister or an agreement with an adjoining landowner that the firebreaks be located somewhere else. (In writing)
- The breaks must be “sufficient to control the spread of wildfires”.
- Firebreaks may not be burnt during times when there is a high fire risk.
WHAT IS THE FIRE DANGER RATING SYSTEM?
- The Minister has prepared a system for determining the risk of fire and the weather conditions, which increase the danger of fire in different parts of the country.
- The fire danger rating prepared by the Minister identifies conditions when the risk of wildfires is:
- When the fire danger rating in a region is extreme or high the Minister must publish a notice in the media.
- If the Minister publishes a notice warning of an extreme or high fire danger in a region no person may light, use or maintain a fire in the open air in that region.
- Warnings of dangerous fire conditions are normally broadcast on TV and over the radio. However, local conditions should be monitored.
WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS FOR ESTABLISHING AND JOINING A FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION?
- The law provides for landowners to establish a fire protection association in an area where there are regular wildfires, fairly uniform vegetation, climate or risk of wildfires.
- The purpose of a fire protection association is predicting, preventing, managing and extinguishing veldfires. It seeks to achieve this through co-operation between landowners, the co-ordination of fire prevention efforts and the sharing of fire fighting resources.
- To establish a fire protection association the following steps must be followed:
- A founding meeting must be convened;
- Notice of the meeting must be given to all landowners and to the Chief Fire Officer of the local authority.
- Those present must decide to establish a fire protection association;
- The fire protection association must adopt a constitution;
- An application must then be submitted to the Department for registration of the Fire Protection Association.
- Once registered, a Fire Protection Association acquires legal powers to make rules, which bind its members, and to exercise any powers delegated to it by the Minister. The Fire Protection Officer of a registered Fire Protection Association is empowered to enforce the FPA’s rules and to inspect members’ property.
- Membership of a fire protection association is voluntary for private landowners and compulsory for organs of state.
- However, there are good reasons for landowners to become members of a Fire Protection Association - the Presumption of Negligence does not apply to a member of a Fire Protection Association.
PRESUMPTION OF NEGLIGENCE
If a person brings civil proceedings and proves that:
- He or she suffered loss;
- The loss was caused by a wildfire; and
- The wildfire started on or spread from land owned by the defendant, the defendant is presumed to have acted negligently in relation to the wildfire unless:
- The defendant proves that he or she was not negligent; or
- The defendant is a member of a FPA in the area where the fire occurred, in which case the person bringing the claim must prove that he or she was negligent.
LEGAL DUTIES OF FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATIONS
A fire protection association has a number of legal duties –
- Develop and apply a wildfire management strategy for its area. (The wildfire management strategy provides among other things for standards for firebreaks, exemptions from boundary breaks, and the maintenance of communal and strategic breaks)
- Develop rules that will bind the members of the FPA.
- Through its Fire Protection Officer, regularly communicate the forecast fire danger rating to its members.
- Organize and train members in fighting, managing and preventing veldfires, and provide management services, training and support to communities.
- Co-ordinate the allocation of resources and fire prevention and suppression activities of members.
- Provide statistics about veldfires in its area to the Minister, and furnish the information needed to prepare or maintain the National Fire Danger Rating System.
- Carry out the various powers and duties delegated to the FPA by the Minister.
- Issue permits that allow for fire breaks and other burns to be carried out in controlled circumstances.
- The operating strategies for FPAs must indicate what powers and duties the Minister should delegate to the FPA.
WHAT ARE THE LEGAL DUTIES REGARDING FIRE SUPPRESSION?
- You may not allow a wildfire to spread across your land.
- You must report a wildfire that is burning on your land to your neighbours and the Fire Protection Association if there is one.
- If you are requested to help fight a wildfire you may not refuse to do so (unless younger than 16 or older than 61).
- You cannot interfere with or obstruct someone who is fighting a wildfire.
- If you are a landuser, you should develop a fire management plan.
WHAT SHOULD BE CONTAINED IN A FIRE MANAGEMENT PLAN?
A fire management plan for a property should identify:
- the fire hazards on different parts of a property;
- the best position for fire breaks;
- areas where controlled burns should be carried out;
- a time table for carrying out controlled burns and for burning fire breaks.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Practice integrated fire management.
- Look after your own land by removing hazardous invasive alien plants.
- Establish fire breaks and ensure that you have sufficient equipment and trained personnel available during fire danger weather.
- Co-operate with neighbours in your fire prevention and suppression efforts.
- Prepare a plan of action to address the following:
- The location of fire breaks;
- Controlled burning pattern;
- If a FPA exists, become a member.
- If no FPA exists, approach your district municipality or farmers union to assist with establishing an FPA.
- Through the FPA, negotiate insurance rebates and rates rebates.
WHAT IS INTEGRATED FIRE MANAGEMENT?
Integrated fire management is a series of actions that are carried out to create a sustainable and well-balanced environment where the damage from wildfires is reduced and the beneficial use of controlledfires is optimised.
It includes fire awareness, fire prevention, prescribed burning, resource sharing and co-ordination, detecting fires, suppressing fires and rehabilitating fire damage.
To be effective, the actions must be carried out at a local, provincial and national level.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Do I have to do anything if I am only leasing the property?
- The Act applies to lessees as much as it applies to the people who own properties.
Do I have to have a firebreak on my property?
- Yes – the basic rule is that every property must have firebreaks along the boundary. This means that the roads authorities must also establish breaks along public roads.
- However, you can agree in writing with your neighbour or within your Fire Protection Association that the breaks will be located elsewhere on one of your properties.
Who must pay for the costs of a firebreak?
- The costs of a firebreak must be shared between the people who have to establish them.
What can I do if my neighbour does not remove a fire hazard from his property?
- Report the matter to the Fire Protection Association in the area.
- Make a complaint to the police and ask that the neighbour be charged.
- Write a letter to the neighbour explaining that their actions are unlawful, requesting that they sort the problem out and point out to them that if they fail to do so your letter may be used against them if there is a court case later.
What can I do if there is no FPA in my area?
- Read the section of this booklet about FPA’s and take steps to form one.
Why should I join an FPA?
- There are many practical advantages to joining an FPA. It allows you to co-ordinate your fire prevention and fire fighting with other people from your area.
- There are also legal advantages to joining an FPA. One is that the Presumption of Negligence will not apply against you. The other is that it is more difficult for someone who wants to make a claim against you for damages that result from a fire to show that you did not take reasonable measures to prevent the fire.
Who is responsible for damages that I suffered as a result of a fire?
- A number of different people could be liable for these damages including:
- The person who started the fire (or their employer if it was started when they were at work;
- The owner or the person in control of the land where the fire started;
- The owner or the person in control of land over which the fire spread.
Who is responsible for the costs of fighting fires?
- The costs of fighting a fire can be recovered from anyone who had a legal duty to prevent the fire starting or spreading or had a legal duty to fight the fire.
The information on this page can be downloaded in the form of a booklet (PDF File format) from www.firewise.org.za.
Article supplied by Ezimvelo KZN Wildlife. Prepared by David Waddilove for the Working on Fire Programme. Acknowledgement: Some of the information in this booklet is drawn directly from Resource Materials on the National Veld and Forest Act No. 101 of 1998 compiled by Stephen Heyns for the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.
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