GARDEN ROUTE NEWS – Drawing a comparison between damage to the environment by the 2017 fires which ripped through Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, and the recent fires spread across 90 000 hectares of the Outeniqua mountain is difficult.
Cobus Meiring of the Southern Cape Landowners Initiative (SCLI) says most important are the affected landscapes. “In the case of the Knysna fires, the fire raced through the coast and coastal plateau, agricultural land, as well as urban and semi-urban landscapes. The Outeniqua fires, by and large, remained on the southern and northern sides of the Outeniqua mountains, extending down to the foothills and lower land in places.”
In both instances, vast plantations were destroyed, along with the destruction of infrastructure, fencing and grazing land.
Meiring says environmentalists concern themselves with damage to the ecology and habitat destruction, as well as the ability of nature to fully recover, or the lack thereof.
“The establishment of invasive alien plants on the landscape, where fire destroyed all vegetation, is always a major reality in the Garden Route, which seems to resemble a hothouse for invasive alien plants and will require massive resources to control. The degradation of soils, damage to indigenous vegetation and landscapes, when repeatedly exposed to fire, might be dire, and lead to species loss, erosion, and permanent damage to river systems,” cautions Meiring.
Funding invested through the Department of Environmental Affairs as well as private landowners and regional and local governments after the 2017 fires ran into millions, and much the same will be needed in dealing with the aftermath of the Outeniqua fires.
Meiring says environmental damage related to the Outeniqua fires, as well as the rehabilitation thereof, will take a long time to fully assess and put a figure to, if ever.
“The biggest environmental risk remains critical water catchments from being overrun by invasive alien plants. Already the mountain range has been badly affected by runaway pine plantations and fire-adapted Hakea.”
However, the dark cloud of smoke may have a silver lining. Meiring says in many respects the latest fire might have been the saving grace of large sections of the once pristine mountains. “Indigenous vegetation may well again stand a chance of taking up its rightful place, and much-needed water and moisture, otherwise absorbed by invasive trees, will be released into rivers and downstream wetlands.”