Veld and Forest Fires

Although now in retirement, at least as a professional sprinter, Usain Bolt remains recorded as the fastest runner in the world. His highest recorded speed, seen during the 100 metre sprint, is 46.7 km/hour.1 The average human running speed, for short distance sprinting, is 19 to 24 km/hour. For long distance running, the type you might need to escape from a wild fire in the veld, it is only 7.5 to 12.8 km/hour.2 However, that fire can travel at 22 km/hour,3 and so the average amongst us could be in serious trouble.

Bush and forest fires are a common occurrence, causing death and widespread destruction. The problem is that they can start in many different ways: naturally, from lightning or spontaneous combustion, and human activities such as machinery sparks, cigarette butts, campfires, and even power-line arcs.

The National Veld and Forest Fire Act 19984 5 provides for a variety of institutions, methods and practices for preventing and combatting veld, forest and mountain fires. It is administered by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

A. Fire danger rating

One of these methods is the system of fire danger rating. ‘Fire danger’ means the chance of a fire (veld, forest or mountain fire) occurring or getting out of control, and the measure is established taking into account various factors. The system is set up and maintained by the Minister (or his delegates) in consultation with the South African Weather Bureau, and fire protection associations.6

When the fire danger is ‘high’ or ‘extreme’, in any particular region, the Minister will publish a warning through the media (including television, radio, and local newspapers).

  1. It is a criminal offence to light, use, or maintain a fire7 in the open air in the region which is identified in such a warning.8

B. Open air fires

  1. If, in the open air, you leave unattended a fire which you lit, used or maintained (before it is extinguished) you commit an offence.9

  2. If you light, use or maintain a fire in the open air which spreads and causes injury or damage, you commit a criminal offence.10

  3. Any person who, in the open air, throws, puts down or drops anything which makes a fire and which then spreads and causes injury or damage commits a crime.11

  4. It is a crime to light, use or maintain a fire in a road reserve12 other than in a fireplace which has been designated by a competent authority.13

  5. If you smoke in the open air where smoking is prohibited, you commit an offence.14

C. Firebreaks

  1. The Act places a burden on every owner of land on which a veld fire may start, or burn, or from which it may spread, to maintain firebreaks.15 (There are no set dimensions for firebreaks: it must just be wide enough,16 not cause soil erosion, and be free of inflammable material.17) It is a criminal offence if you are obliged to do so, but fail to prepare and maintain a firebreak.18

  2. There is the same duty on a landowner, if his land has the risk of veld fire and any part of the land is on the border of the Republic. The fire break must be as close as possible to the border. It is a crime not to meet this duty.19

  3. If you are going to prepare and maintain a firebreak by burning, you must (a) determine a mutually agreeable date with the owners of adjoining land and (b) inform the fire protection association (if any) for the area. If you can’t agree a date, you must give 14 days advance notice in writing. If you don’t give this notice, you commit a crime.20

  4. If the fire protection association in question objects, the owner commits a criminal offence if he continues with the proposed burning.21

  5. If the proposed burning cannot go ahead on the agreed or notified date(s), the owner commits a criminal offence if he does not inform the owners of adjoining land, and the fire protection association, and also advising them of the newly scheduled date(s).22

D. Fire fighting

  1. The owner, occupier or person in control of land on which a fire occurs is guilty of an offence if he fails to take reasonable steps to extinguish the fire, or to confine it to that land, or to prevent it from causing damage to property on adjoining land.23

  2. Every owner on whose land a veldfire may start, or burn, or from whose land it may spread, must have such equipment, protective clothing and trained personnel for extinguishing fires either as prescribed,24 or as are reasonably required in the circumstances. It is a criminal offence not to comply with these requirements.25

  3. Every such land owner must also ensure that, if he is absent, there are responsible persons present who, in the event of fire:
    • will extinguish the fire, or assist in doing so; and
    • take all reasonable steps to alert the owners of adjoining land and the relevant fire protection association, if any.

    The owner commits a crime if he does not do this.26

  4. If a land owner has reason to believe that a fire on his land (or the land of an adjoining owner) may endanger life, property or the environment, he must immediately notify the fire protection officer (or, failing him, any member of the executive committee of the fire protection association, if one exists for the area) and the owners of adjoining land. It is an offence not to do this.27

  5. The Act provides that any person, who has reason to believe that a fire on any land may endanger life, property or the environment, is allowed to enter that land (or the land to which the fire can spread) in order to prevent that fire from spreading or to extinguish it. If you hinder or obstruct that person, you commit an offence.28

E. The officers who fight fires

  1. Fire protection officers know what they are doing. That is why the Act gives them the power to take control over fighting a fire, and they can order anyone between 16 and 60 years to assist.29 If you hinder or obstruct any fire protection officer in this process, you commit an offence.30 If you refuse to assist the fire protection officer, you also commit an offence.31

  2. The same applies to forest officers,32 where there is a fire in a State forest or within 10 kilometres of any State forest. Do not hinder or obstruct him; and assist if he orders you to do so. Otherwise, you commit an offence.33

  3. Fire protection officers, forest officers, police officers and officers in the fire brigade have extensive powers of entry to property, searching, stopping vehicles, seizing things, and arrest. This is necessary for them to do their job in fighting fire, and preventing crimes under the Act. Any person who prevents, or in any way interferes with such an officer in the performance of his duties commits a criminal offence.34

  1. Wikipedia – ‘Biomechanical Research Project Berlin 2009’. 

  2. ‘Average-Speed-Human’. 

  3. Wikipedia – ‘Wildfire/physical properties’.

  4. NOTE: This is one of the statutes where the State has imposed a form of strict liability. It provides that ‘negligence amounts to fault for the purposes of an offence’. 

  5. See section 7 of the Act. 

  6. Which are registered in terms of section 4 of the Act. 

  7. It is safe(r) to assume that this even means a braai. 

  8. Section 25(1) read with section 10(2). 

  9. Section 25(2)(a). 

  10. Section 25(2)(b). 

  11. Section 25(2)(c). 

  12. For a purpose other than the burning of a firebreak. 

  13. Section 25(2)(d). 

  14. Section 25(2)(e. 

  15. Section 12 (1). 

  16. It is well known that fires can jump. If not by the flames themselves, winds and vertical convection columns can carry hot embers and other burning materials over roads, rivers and other barriers. (In Australia, for example, spot fires have been known to occur 20 kilometres from the fire front – Wikipedia: ‘Wildfire – Physical Properties’ So this ‘wide enough’ parameter must have some ‘reasonableness’ aspect to it. 

  17. Section 13. 

  18. Section 12(1) read with section 25(3)a. 

  19. Section 14 read with section 25(3)a. 

  20. Section 12(2) read with 25(3)b. 

  21. Section 12(4)a read with 25(3)c. 

  22. Section 12(5) read with 25(3)d. 

  23. Section 25(5). 

  24. There are no such prescribed regulations. 

  25. Section 19(1)a read with section 25(4)a. 

  26. Section 17(1)b read with section 25(4)a. 

  27. Section 18(1)a read with section 25(4)b. 

  28. Section 18(2) read with section 25(4)d. 

  29. Section 18(3). 

  30. Section 18(3) read with section 25(4)d. 

  31. Section 18(3) read with section 25(4)c. 

  32. Who are appointed in terms of the National Forests Act 1998. 

  33. Section 18(4) read with section 25(4)(c) and (d). 

  34. Section 25(6) read with sections 27, 28 and 29.