Firebreaks and Safety from Fire in Rural and Farming Areas

Firebreaks and Safety from Fire in Rural and Farming AreasIntroduction

Every year we experience the severe impact caused by uncontrolled fires. During the dry winter, veld fires spread quickly, destroying farms and crops and even result in loss of life.

This past year many farmers, farmworkers and firemen and women were treated for burns from these fires.

In this section, we would like to consider how long-term disaster risk management strategies can reduce the risks of veld fires for not only those living and working in rural areas but also for the motoring public.

Preparedness to fight Fire

How can we [especially our farming community] be better prepared for safety from and during veld and forest fires?

  • Join a Fire Protection Association.

  • Collaborate with others. It is important for farmers to work together and share ideas and solutions on how to tackle risk.

  • Maintain Equipment. Faulty machinery can lead to veld fires if it is not checked and kept in good working order. It is essential for equipment to be in working order to protect employees, livestock and other assets in the event of a fire.

  • Make certain exhaust systems including manifolds, mufflers and turbochargers, are free of leaks and in good working order.

  • Replace worn electrical components, bearings, belts or chains.

  • Provide adequate emergency vehicle access and water supply.

  • Create a veld fire plan, covering the eventualities of both staying and defending property or leaving it ahead of the veld fire.

  • Train workers and staff in firefighting techniques, how to deal with fire problems and safety standards for smoking, burning rubbish, etc.

  • Stress the importance of everyday maintenance and housekeeping in preventing fire.

  • Install, inspect and maintain appropriate warning and extinguishing systems in residences, farm buildings, on tractors, combines and around mechanized equipment.

  • This should include fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, fire alarms and, ideally in some locations and circumstances, sprinklers.

  • Invest in your own well-maintained firefighting equipment (such as a petrol/diesel-powered water pump).

  • Reduce fuel loads and avoid uncontrolled alien vegetation infestation on your land.

  • Owners of thatched houses must take all necessary precautions such as installing drenchers, using fire blankets and having fire extinguishers to hand.

  • Use technology: satellite-based fire information tools such as AFIS provides real-time fire information.

  • During the cooler months, controlled or prescribed burning is sometimes used and may decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires. Controlled burning must be overseen by fire control authorities for regulations and permits. Please contact your local municipality or fire brigade.

  • Share your plan with your neighbours and fire protection officer, if you have one.

  • Make sure your firebreaks are in place and that they are wide and long enough to stop a fire.

  • Make sure contact numbers of Fire and Rescue services are easily accessible.

  • Consult your fire department for advice and literature on all farm fire safety and fire prevention matters.

  • Stay in touch; keep communication lines open. WhatsApp, SMS or radios can be used.

  • Formalise who is responsible for what, when a fire breaks out there is no time to allocate responsibilities; everyone must know exactly what they must do. Meet regularly to update your procedures.

  • Consult with the Experts such as Working on Fire

Reducing the Risks of Veld Fires

Reducing the Risks of Veld Fires

Planning and Readiness

  • Farmers should create risk management strategies to deal with fire risks.

  • They should restrict the use of farm machinery on days when the fire danger is high.

  • Be extra careful when using welding, cutting and grinding equipment.

  • Welders and cutting torches should only be used in clean areas at least 10m away from any flammable and combustible materials. Welding curtains should be used.

  • Store vehicles and machinery, which present special hazards, in buildings separate from those used for other purposes.

  • Post signs and enforce “No Smoking” bans in barns and around machinery and combustible and flammable materials.

  • Never permit smoking in or near barns, outbuildings or flammable material storage areas.

  • Never refuel an internal combustion engine while it is hot or running.

  • Be sure that all electrical wiring is inspected and approved.

  • Install lightning rods on all major buildings.

  • Periodically inspect all wiring and electrical motors and appliances for exposed wires, broken insulation, fraying, and indications of wear or rodent damage, proper grounding and installation.

  • Burn trash only in an incinerator equipped with a spark arrester or a covered burn barrel.

  • Establish firebreaks between land and roads or railways.

  • Identify and minimize the risk of possible fire hazards in your operations and residence.

Removing the fuel the fire needs to spread

  • Remove highly flammable and combustible materials and accelerants where possible.

  • Document the location and nature of those that cannot be removed.

  • See that crops are dry before storing, provide adequate ventilation in crop storage areas and repair leaking roofs.

  • Check for other spontaneous combustion hazards such as haystacks, manure piles and oily or paint-soaked rags.

  • Clearly mark and store flammable liquids in approved containers in well-ventilated areas away from heat, sparks, combustible materials and other potential ignition sources.

  • Keep all ignition sources away from combustible materials. Do not store materials such as hay, straw, grains, fertilizers or pesticides with machinery or near any type of electrical or heat source.

  • Remove highly flammable vegetation from within at least 5 feet of residences and farm buildings.

  • Create non-combustible zones around spaces where equipment, fuel, hay and chemicals are stored.

Making it Easier for Response

Making it Easier for Response

  • Facilitate fire service response by working with your fire department to make certain that adequate water supply is available.

  • Remove obstructions from aisles, walkways, driveways, and doors in order to provide fire service with a clear path.

  • Provide a list of stored hazardous materials to your fire department and update regularly.

Firebreaks and Back burns

  • A firebreak is a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a bushfire or wildfire. A firebreak may occur naturally where there is a lack of vegetation or "fuel", such as a river, dam or canyon.

  • Firebreaks may also be man-made, and many of these also serve as roads, such as a logging road, four-wheel drive trail, secondary road, or a highway.

  • The purpose of a firebreak is to provide an area of reduced fuel load which will reduce the intensity of a fire and therefore allow for more effectively combating and to also serve as a line from which a back burn can be started.

  • In the construction of a firebreak, the primary goal is to remove deadwood and undergrowth down to mineral soil

  • Although fire- breaks cannot completely protect farms against large veld fires, they play an important role in controlling and containing smaller fires on the farm – and are compulsory by law.

  • Firebreaks are often backed up with other firefighting efforts. Even then, it is still sometimes possible for fire to spread across a seemingly impenetrable divide.

  • Back burning involves starting small fires along a man-made or natural firebreak in front of the main fire front.

  • Back burning reduces the amount of fuel that's available to the main fire by the time that it reaches the burnt area.

Where should we create firebreaks?

  • External firebreaks act as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a fire and provide fire protection on the boundaries of a property.

  • Properties border natural vegetation, public roads or railway lines, rural or farming communities, urban-interface areas of cities, or industrial sites, which all present varying degrees of a fire hazard.

  • The firebreak will be constructed and maintained according to the established best practices of sustainable forestry and fire protection engineering.

  • The general goals are to maximize the effectiveness of the firebreak at slowing the spread of wildfire, and by using firebreaks of sufficient size and density to hopefully reduce the ultimate size of wildfires.

When to create Firebreaks

  • It is important to learn to recognise the weather conditions associated with high fire danger: temperature, wind speed/direction and humidity.

  • Keep neighbours informed of your plans to make firebreaks.

  • Never burn on windy days.

  • Keep water and firefighting tools handy.

  • Do not conduct field burning without proper safety precautions and consultation with the local fire department or fire protection agency.

How to create Firebreaks

How to create Firebreaks

  • Prepare firebreaks on the side of the boundary. Owners of adjoining land may agree to position a common firebreak away from the boundary.

  • Discuss fire breaks with neighbours and plan together – it should be in the right place, cost-effective and be practical to implement. Document your agreed fire breaks.

  • External firebreaks can be provided in various ways, including the regular burning of grassland or other bordering vegetation, adding prescribed burned stands, ploughing of firebreaks, scraping of firebreaks or hand-clearing fire breaks.

  • It should be wide enough and long enough to have a reasonable chance of preventing a fire from spreading to or from neighbouring land, and so that

    • It does not cause soil erosion;

    • It is reasonably free of a flammable material capable of carrying a fire across it; and

    • It is maintained.

Some natural (or human-made) veld conditions, e.g. recently burned veld (younger than four years), a natural vlei, a dam or river, old farmlands and floodplains can be regarded as a natural firebreak.

The width of firebreaks depends on where it is to be made:

  • Firebreaks in crop residue /fallow land – at least 2,5 m wide.

  • Fynbos/Natural veld on agricultural land – 2,5 m x the height of vegetation (minimum of 5 m).

  • Road verge (provincial and district roads)– 3 m on either side to be maintained annually.

  • Labour housing, farm infrastructure and homesteads – 10 m.

  • Wildland interface – 20 m, depending on the adjacent land type such as Protected Areas, Formal Forestry Plantations etc.

Check with your local municipality, fire brigade or Fire Protection Association to confirm the rules and regulations for your area.

The Law and Responsibility to prepare and maintain Firebreaks

The Law and Responsibility to prepare and maintain Firebreaks

The National Veld and Forest Fire Act 101 of 1998 prescribes the following statutory landowner requirements:

Duty to prepare and maintain firebreaks (Section 12)

  1. Every owner on whose land a veld-fire may start or burn or from whose land it may spread must prepare and maintain a firebreak on his or her side of the boundary between his or her land and any adjoining land.


    1. If an owner referred to in subsection (1) intends to prepare and maintain a firebreak by burning, he or she must determine a mutually agreeable date or dates with the owners of adjoining land for doing so, and inform the fire protection association for the area, if any.

    2. If agreement cannot be reached, such owner must give to the owners of adjoining land and the fire protection association for the area, if any, at least 14 days written a notice of the day or days during which he or she intends burning firebreaks, fire danger permitting.

  3. An owner of adjoining land who has agreed on a day in terms of subsection (2)(a) or who receives a notice in terms of subsection (2)(b) must-

    1. burn his or her firebreak on the boundary concerned on the same day or days; or

    2. be present at such burning or have his or her agent attend; and

    3. ensure that a sufficient number of persons are present on his or her side of the boundary to prevent any spread of fire when the firebreak is burned.

  4. An owner may not burn a firebreak, despite having complied with subsection (2), if-

    1. the fire protection association objects to the proposed burning; or

    2. a warning has been published in terms of subsection 10(1)(b)because the fire danger is high in the region, or

    3. the conditions are not conducive to the burning of firebreaks.

  5. The owner must inform the owners of adjoining land and the fire protection association if any-

    1. if burning cannot be done on the agreed day or days referred to in subsection (2)(a) or any of the days referred to in subsection (2)(b); and

    2. of the additional days on which he or she intends to burn because of the failure to do so on the day or days set in terms of subsection (2)(a) or (b).

  6. It is not necessary for the owner to give 14 days notice of the additional days.

  7. Owners of adjoining land may agree to position a common firebreak away from the boundary.

  8. Should an owner intend to be absent for a period longer than 14 days during the period or part of any period in which burning normally takes place, he or she must give all owners of adjoining land an address and telephone number, if any, at which he or she may be contacted.

  9. If an owner of adjoining land-

    1. is not present on the agreed or notified day or days; or

    2. has not given an address and telephone number, if any, as required in subsection (8), the owner may proceed with the burning in his or her absence.

  10. A fire protection association may make rules different from subsections (2) to (6) if the new rules are approved by the Minister, in which event members are bound by the new rules and exempt from subsections (2) to (6).

[Section 12 came into effect on 2 July 1999]

Requirements for firebreaks (Section 13)

  1. An owner who is obliged to prepare and maintain a firebreak must ensure that, with due regard to the weather, climate, terrain and vegetation of the area-

    1. it is wide enough and long enough to have a reasonable chance of preventing a wildfire from spreading to or from neighbouring land;

    2. it does not cause soil erosion, and

    3. it is reasonably free of an inflammable material capable of carrying a veld-fire across it.

[Section 13 came into effect on 2 July 1999]

Fire Protection Associations and Preparedness for Worst Case Scenarios

Fire Protection Associations and Preparedness for Worst Case Scenarios

There are Responsibilities for people in control of the land. All owners on whose land a fire may start or burn or from whose land it may spread must:

  • Have the necessary equipment, protective clothing and trained personnel for extinguishing fires as are prescribed in the regulations.

  • If a fire should break out, take all reasonable steps to alert the neighbours and notify the relevant fire brigade, fire protection officer of the local Fire Protection Association (FPA) if there is one.

  • Do everything in your power to safely stop the fire from spreading.

  • If the owner of the land is absent, he or she must appoint a responsible person on the land or nearby his or her land to take the needed precautions if a fire might occur or assist to do so.

However, you cannot always effectively prevent, manage and fight fires on your own. You may want to consider becoming a member of your local Fire Protection Association (FPA). FPAs help land users to predict, prevent, manage and extinguish wildfires. Wildfires move through landscapes very quickly; destroying property, livelihoods, biodiversity and sometimes even lives.

Your local FPA can help landowners meet their legal requirements, provide training to landowners and their staff and guide them through fire management planning and also assist with firebreak preparation. You will be assisted to become legally compliant, as per national regulations. Members are offered training in firefighting, fire management and fire prevention. Membership is voluntary and there is a nominal joining fee.

There are FPAs across South Africa. If no FPA exists in your area, approach your district municipality or farmers’ union to assist.

Also view:

Safe driving near Veld and Forest Fires

Escape and Safety from Vehicle Fire

Safety from Fire at our Homes

Treatment and Safety from Burns: Frequently Asked Questions

Pocket Book

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