Those  fuzzy yellow blossoms that  covered some of our mountains in early Spring look great from far – but are far from nice…

…because they mark a whole new season of invasive plants that will worsen our fire risk, kill our fynbos and affect the soil it grows in.  These aliens make fire more dangerous by raising the intensity of the fire and size of the flames so the fire burns hotter as it sweeps across the mountains of the South Peninsula.

Fynbos needs fire periodically, but not these kinds of fires.  Fynbos tends to burn fast so the ground is hardly touched by the fire – but our most prevalent aliens, Port Jackson and Rooikrans, have such deep roots and dense foliage, that they burn hotter and scorch the ground.  This also keeps the heat longer, makes the fire more intense and harder to put out.  When the rains arrive later in the year, the scorched ground can develop into a mudslide.  Such unnecessary damage is caused by poor land management.

Fire season begins around November and ends in April each year, when the Cape is at its hottest and driest.  By such time, the pretty blooms you see now will already have produced thousands of pushy new plants that are over a meter high.

 At that height, they can make fire significantly more potent and dangerous to houses. 

The lack of rain that fell during winter this year suggests the land will be exceptionally dry – which worsens our fire risk.  This means that these pretty blooms will pose a greater threat next year.

 Why do these plants (which come from Australia) mean so much trouble when they look so pretty?  Because they grow faster than fynbos, they send their roots much deeper than fynbos, and because the other plants and parasites that would control them in Australia, aren’t found here.  One of their natural parasites was introduced a number of years ago, but this attempt did not affect its spread; it only produced ugly plant growths.  So they grow rampant, with nothing to stop them. Fire only hastens their spread.

 To see how widely they spread, notice how many large areas of land (private and State owned) have wide expanses of aliens growing on them.  Most of these aliens are already 3 to 4 meters high, because they have been growing for a number of years.  They are sharply contrasted by the beautifully managed National Parks land, which is plainly seen when driving past. 

Owners of some large areas of alien infested land argue that their budgets cannot accommodate effective management, despite the huge cost of fire fighting and the potential criminal charges that could be laid against them in the event of a severe fire. 

Table Mountain National Parks have established a very effective land management strategy.  Once they clear an area of aliens, they ensure the plants do not reestablish themselves – which is the most cost effective solution by far.  The growth of our indigenous Fynbos is greatly encouraged by this method too. 

 There is an organization called Working on Fire, who has a programme where all landowners collaborate together to address fire prevention.  This has been very successfully implemented in Gordon’s bay. 

Unfortunately the Working on Fire programme has not yet been established in the Far South – but they have recently identified it as a key focus area.  For the programme to succeed in shaping us into a fire wise community, all residents need to cooperate.

Areas such as Welcome Glen and Da Gama Park have been identified as having an extremely high fire risk, because they are situated behind a large expanse of alien growth, in direct line of the South Easter (the prevailing summer wind), they have no firebreaks and they have a number of badly overgrown areas between some houses.  Many other settlements within the Far South also carry a burden of overgrowth and the whole area needs proper assessment.

If Port Jackson and Rooikrans is such a problem, then why are they here?

Early settlers in the Cape brought these plants from Australia to keep the sand from blowing on the dunes and to produce firewood. They chose Port Jackson and Rooikrans because they grow fast, but did not realise the huge problem they would create one day.

Beyond the danger they pose to us in a fire, they are also a problem to our natural plants.

Fynbos is a very special Cape plant kingdom that does not occur anywhere else in South Africa or the world.  Imagine that – just one little pocket of something so different!  That’s what makes the Cape famous and brings tourists here just to see it and scientists to study it. In many ways it is just as rich in diversity as the Amazon rainforest or Borneo coral reefs.

Learn about these aliens (and others not mentioned here) and help to get rid of them. You can do this either by making a huge fuss to authorities, or by rolling up your sleeves and joining in… go to this website for more information: http://www.southerncrossroads.info/community/enemy-alien-plants.php.

Report any alien growth you see to the Fire Safety office in Wynberg 021 797 6842 or join your local residents committee and offer your assistance. 

Alternatively, email the Glencairn Fire Watch (which is open to all residents of the Far South) on: glencairnfirewatch@gmail.com so that you can stay in the loop of developments from the Working on Fire programme.

Clare Roy of Glencairn