The Working on Fire (WOF) – Kishugu Joint Venture, responsible for implementing the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Working on Fire Programme, celebrated its 20th Anniversary with a symposium on the many learnings and resolutions from local and global fire-fighting deployments. The symposium, which was held on 08 – 10 November 2023 at Kruger National Park, brought together experts from a variety of fields to discuss the challenges and opportunities of climate change for firefighting organisations and heavily impacted communities. The attendees ranged from wildfire management practitioners, wildfire scientists, weather experts, and provincial and local disaster management practitioners, as well as a host of international speakers. They were joined by local municipalities, Fire Protection Associations, forestry companies, conservation agencies, and the agriculture sector representatives.
The theme of the symposium encouraged speakers to emphasise the importance of preventative measures in the face of climate change and global warming which is continuing to exacerbate the threat of catastrophic wildfires, as experienced this year in countries such as Canada, Hawaii, Greece, Algeria, and closer at home in South Africa, in the Northern Cape and the North West Province.
The symposium included educated and experienced speakers from Canada, Tanzania, and Italy. The speakers shared their observations from fields ranging from research to engineering, discussing and presenting their case studies and offering a platform to learn from their internal processes as well as their collaborative projects across countries.
The symposium topics that were covered included:
- Working on Fire and its Integrated Fire Management (IFM) Approach to Fire Management
- Climate Change and the New “Normal” in IFM
- Empowering Africa to Become IFM Compliant
- Prevention: The Key to Mitigating the Increased Incidence of Wildland Fires
- Better Collaboration of Global, Continental and Local Level
Trevor Abrahams, CEO of WOF, underscored the critical interplay between wildfires and climate change in his keynote address. Abrahams emphasised that wildfires exacerbate climate change, creating a feedback loop that amplifies the frequency, size, and severity of these destructive events. His message to delegates extended beyond the camaraderie of firefighting solutions, urging a collective recognition of the urgent need for teamwork in addressing climate change. Abrahams positioned wildfires as not just a challenge but a pivotal ecological factor, reinforcing WOF’s mission statement: community stands as the primary defense in managing climate change, emphasising the immediacy of collective action.
Climate Change is a Constant
The rate of fire increase in South Africa over the last year is significant. According to the Global Forest Watch, there were 17,685 VIIRS fire alerts reported in South Africa in 2023, considering high confidence alerts only. This is 6% higher than the number of fire alerts reported in 2022, and the highest number of fire alerts reported in South Africa since 2012. “In 2023 we already had 2093 fires. That is almost peaking the highest level in the last 8 years,” said Abrahams.
Climate Change is out of our control. The symposium emphasised the importance of a proactive community approach, insisting that while climate change cannot be stopped it can be managed – and everyone is invited to contribute. A representative from the Disaster Management Centre proclaimed: “Disaster Management is everybody’s business” – of which the congregation concurred.
The delegates were presented with on-the-ground case studies that were conducted in a variety of areas; one common component of which was mentioned in the resolve discussion was the observation of ‘simplicity’. We’ve learnt that fires can be managed by simple observation within communities. Case studies proved that by merely asking the neighbourhoods and leaning into the real-time observations from the people of fire-struck areas, in just a few lines, one could develop the beginning of a solid fire plan. “Simple observations are authentic observations and so they help determine the most practical, manageable ways to protect our communities and mitigate disaster,” said Abrahams.
Professor John F. Kessy who also addressed the symposium added: “The challenge that exists is to translate these guidelines into actions on the ground that are likely to transform situations.” Professor Kessy informed the audience of the pivotal points that resulted in better fire management in Tanzania. “Community-level action plans that benefit these entities for working closely with these communities cannot be over-emphasised,” said Kessy.
A call was sounded at the symposium to change the culture around wildland fires, stating that it will require a culture change and mindset shift. People make culture; from government legislation, to our closest fire department, to private researchers and planners.
The WOF 20th Anniversary symposium on climate change was a collaborative resounding success. With every speaker and activity, the attendees became more aware of the direct implication of climate change on fires, and how in the end, we all are part of the solution. “The integrated call to work together has always been heard, but now it is being understood,” said Abrahams.
To learn more and be a part of the change, connect with Working On Fire www.workingonfire.org