Invasive plants reduce resilience to wildfire

Invasive plants reduce resilience to wildfire

The Overberg is preparing for the next fire season as we head into the summer months following a dry winter. Because of the increased fire risks, landowners and property owners are now encouraged to address the threats of invasive alien plants – which increase the severity and frequency of wildfires.

In the Overberg, now is the final opportunity to prepare for the upcoming fire season. Fire season starts in November in the Overstrand and December in the rest of the Overberg.

According to Chris Martens of the Fynbos Trust and board member of the Greater Overberg Fire Protection Association (goFPA), there’s a close connection between fire and invasive plants. “Invasive aliens are a huge wildfire threat in the Overberg. Fires burn hotter and more often in our fynbos landscapes and the urban interface because of these plants. They change fire behaviour and they alter fire regimes.”

For those landowners who have cleared invasive plants, these wildfires can also undo all the work and money spent on clearing. That’s because fires stimulate the seed of invasive species, especially the likes of Port Jackson (Acacia saligna) and Long-leaf wattle (Acacia longifolia). Chris says, “These seeds can remain in the soil for a hundred years and more, and will always outcompete indigenous fynbos after a fire.”

Using fire to manage invasive species

But there is a flip side to the relationship between fire and alien plants: fire can also be used as a potential tool to manage aliens. “This provides an opportunity for landowners to use fire to help manage their invasive plants – but this needs to be done with careful and clever planning, and should never be done in an ad hoc way.”

The Greater Overberg Fire Protection Association is now teaming up with the Fynbos Trust and other partners to encourage landowners to start addressing the threat of invasive plants through fire.

Mitch Afrika, Extension Officer of the goFPA says the first step is to ensure farmers and property owners have the right information to develop an integrated fire and invasive alien management plan.

The steps to take to compile the plan

He says, “Landowners should identify management units where these integrated activities can take place. These should be chosen based on things like the size of the area, the fire history, the ability to control fires, and whether it’s close to infrastructure. They could even look at conservation priority areas, such as rivers and wetlands, to increase water flow once the plants are removed.”

Once the management units have been selected, landowners should carefully plan their next steps. Mitch says, “Know what aliens you have and how much you have. Fire breaks need to be in place. And only then can planned burns be undertaken, with follow up invasive alien clearing ready to take place when the invasive seeds germinate.”

He says the aim of planned burns is to have a mosaic of different fynbos veld ages across the property. This not only helps the natural area, but also supports fire fighters to douse wildfires when the fire reaches the younger veld.

“The tip for landowners is to plan management activities in a way that allows fire to remove invasive plants cost-effectively.”

Fires become harder to extinguish as alien plants flourish

Chris adds that managing invasive plants and wildfire not only reduces the threat to infrastructure, especially in the Overstrand district, where houses border the natural fynbos landscapes. It also reduces the severe impact that fires have on fynbos landscapes. “While fynbos is a fire-driven ecosystem, too frequent fires have devastating results. They can lead to plant extinctions. Fynbos wildlife has also evolved with fire over the last four million years but unseasonal and short-rotation burns can destroy much of the wildlife,”

The Overberg District Municipality’s Chief Fire Officer Reinard Geldenhuys warns that as invasive plants continue to overwhelm the natural landscapes, the dangers of wildfires increase. “Every year we see how these alien species make it more difficult for fire fighters to extinguish fires, and all the more dangerous for our teams and for people living in areas that are burning. If we can’t start to bring these invasions under control, we face even tougher fire seasons in the near future.”

The goFPA will share tips for landowners and property owners in the coming months on their website and social media, providing information on how to compile integrated fire and invasive alien species plans. Watch www.overbergfpa.co.za and the Facebook page (@goFPA) for more. There are also other resources available to guide landowners in their planning, including the WWF South Africa-funded handbook, “A practical guide to managing invasive alien plants” – available free on the WWF South Africa website (www.wwf.org.za).

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