The forestry industry in South Africa is using world-leading technology to detect fires and wisps of smoke in plantations.
The technology “has proven itself in South Africa by helping to prevent many potentially catastrophic wildfires,” said Ronald Heath of Forestry SA. It is being used as part of a wide-ranging fire-management strategy by the industry.
The system, called Firehawk, has cameras positioned on masts or look-out towers in plantations. The cameras revolve through 360 degrees every two minutes and the images are transmitted to a control room, where computer algorithms analyse them for smoke, fires and fire glow that the naked human eye might overlook – a risk particularly at night.
When a risk is detected, the system’s operators contact the plantation managers and firefighting teams. An alert also sounds instantly on an app on the manager’s cell phone.
This app also gives a picture of the fire, its latitude and longitude, and the plantation block on which it was identified. The speed with which fire-fighters need to get there, and 12-hour forecast of the weather conditions are also provided. The efficiency of the system enables fire-fighters to be dispatched within minutes of the fire being detected.
Firehawk is used in about 80% of forestry land in KwaZulu-Natal and 30% nationally, said its CO O, Willem Oosthuizen. A new contract, covering plantations from Piet Retief to North of Badplaas, will see the system cover about 50% of plantation land in the country.
The forestry industry spends R1bn annually on preventative and integrated fire management – excluding actual fire-fighting – and more money on fighting fires off its own property, than on them.
Introduced in South Africa in 1994, the technology is also used in Chile, Brazil, Ghana and Malawi.
Ronald said an average of 15.6% of the forestry sector’s annual harvest has been lost to wildfire over the past 30 years. This amounts to over 17600ha and R546m lost annually, and more than R2.86bn annually when processing sectors are included.
Early detection is part of a broader industry strategy to manage fires. This also includes extensive publicity campaigns and advertisements in several languages to improve community buy-in, as many fires spread to plantations after being started by communities to improve their grazing land, or irresponsible burning practices, Ronald said.
Other aspects are the use of the Fire Danger Index and basing fire-fighting teams in high-risk areas of plantations in readiness for potential fires on red-alert days; controlled burns under the forest canopy to reduce fuel loads; burning fuel loads after trees are felled, in areas where this will not damage the soil; preparing fire breaks and building roads through plantations in places where they will act as firebreaks and defendable spaces.
Large forestry companies also help fight fires on the land of smaller growers who do not have fire-fighting resources.
The forestry industry spends R1 bn on preventative and integrated fire management – excluding actual fire-fighting – annually, while the government spends about half of this on veld fire prevention, said Duane Roothman, general manager of forestry in KwaZulu-Natal for SAPPI and head of the industry’s Fire Working Group.
This spend is “totally out of kilter,” as plantations cover only one percent of land in the country.
The national Integrated Fire Management strategy requires all landowners to participate in preventing and fighting fires. Farmers play a large role but many municipalities, including those in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, do far less than they should, participating poorly in Fire Protection Associations and failing to ringfence funds for fire-fighting, said Duane.
Municipalities in the Southern and Western Cape play a far greater role.
The industry spends more money fighting fires off its own properties than on them, Duane said.
The forestry sector’s efforts in proactively mitigating damage from fire is quite clear when looking at the devastating fires in the Southern Cape in 2017 and 2018, said Ronald. Although plantations suffered significant damage, this could have been much worse if owners had not implemented integrated fire management plans and had been less organised and well-resourced.
Visit https://www.firehawk.co.za/videos to see Firehawk in action.