Last week early in the morning, Maseke Game Reserve staff and volunteers gathered at a predetermined site to start and subsequently control a bush fire. For many years range managers made the mistake of overprotecting the African bush from fires. This intervention had consequences which we are still dealing with today. One conspicuous result has been an increase in the woody component of the bush – or what is commonly termed; bush encroachment. Today we know that the African bush benefits from a well-timed and managed fire.
Fire is a useful tool in veld management and how and when you burn will depend on the result you wish to achieve. The removal of moribund plant material allows for better light penetration that stimulates grass growth. We generally try to emulate nature and burn at a time of the year when we could have a natural fire started by lightning. Electric storms occur in late winter and early summer- round about now, before the rains and when the grass is still dry from our winter months. The ground surface after a burn is highly susceptible to wind erosion and extreme fluctuations in temperature. We want to avoid leaving the land exposed for longer than necessary and prefer to burn close to when the first rains are expected.
The burning team assembled at two meeting points on roads on either side of the block to be burnt. A backburn was started next to the gravel road burning slowly against the breeze. Later a head fire was started against the opposite road and burning with the wind, moving much faster. A head fire tends to be less intense and preferable for our purpose so the majority of the burn was to be a head fire. The back burn was employed to prevent the head fire from ” jumping” over the fire break created against the road.
We used vehicles with water tanks and sprays and rubber beaters to kill fire that escapes or changes direction. The fire would flare up when reaching certain more flammable plants and when gusts of wind fanned the flames. It did jump our fire break and we had to then race ahead of the flames to closest road where we back burnt into the block. The smoke, the heat and the speed of a bush fire demands much respect.
We will watch with interest to see the wildlife return to the burnt area. Zebra are quick to move back and are often found on burnt tracts that are still smoldering. We hope for a good rainy season to attain the full benefit of the fire.