Open letter to Bitou mayor about our fire future

I realise that you must have been as horrified as everyone about the fires which our area has been subjected to, and I send my condolences to you and to everyone in your municipality that has suffered in any way.
I have lived in Bitou since 1976, and was personally affected by the fire at The Crags in April 1998. Although I did not lose my home, I lost a lot of wood and machinery (at that time I had a furniture-making business on our farm), and building damage that adversely impacted my livelihood considerably.
I would have lost much more than I did, except that I used to keep my fields cut very short, and I did not leave the cut, dry matter on the field; each time I cut it, I burnt it so that it could not fuel any fire that might come my way.
This was a twice-yearly procedure, which was expensive at the time, but it certainly stood me in good stead when the fire-storm came through my farm.
From that time I have watched other run-away fires on our Garden Route so densely covered in fynbos - as well as, unfortunately, pine, wattle, Port Jackson willow and other invasive alien plants.
I am extremely glad and excited, as I’m sure you are too, with the news from Paris, France, that the Garden Route Biosphere has been recognised and accredited by the United Nations. [Turn to page 4 of the June 21 edition at www.cxpress.co.za, and look out for CXPRESS of July 5].
I hope that in the future, and because of this recognition, a larger budget than has previously been the case will be set aside to help rejuvenate our landscape.
Over many years it has been allowed to get over-grown with alien invasive vegetation, and in part this type of vegetation provides a run-away fire with a much hotter and more dangerous fire-load.
So I’m hoping this issue will be addressed by Bitou Municipality and by Province now that we have suffered so badly by these recent fires, in an effort to understand how best to go forward, knowing that with climate change and a degraded landscape these fires will get worse in time.
If the law stating that all alien vegetation must be cleared off private and state land were implemented, this would go a long way towards helping decrease the danger of future fires in our area: without the fuel load they would not be so hot, and they would not travel so fast.
After the fires in December, we were surprised to learn that firebreaks in our area were non-existent. Surely it would be ideal if each and every location, township, informal settlement and suburb were surrounded by a twice-yearly maintained 15m fire-break?
Plett has many - too many - unemployed and poor people, and by making and maintaining these fire-breaks, a lot of those people would find employment. At the same time, they would be protecting our town and its outlying suburbs from this most dangerous threat of all: run-away wild-fires.
The same goes for the Eskom lines: vegetation growing underneath these lines should be cleared twice-yearly, so that in high winds trees do not fall onto the lines.
And another question begs a response. Word has it that there exists a position in Council, or in Bitou Municipality, for an Environmental Officer. I believe this post has been vacant ever since it became available 18 months ago.
In a town world-renowned for its natural beauty, and which depends on tourism for much of its income, it would be a great thing to have this essential environmental post filled by someone with the correct qualifications, especially now that we have United Nations recognition for our Garden Route Biosphere.
For the amount of tourism attracted to our area by the landscape, the ocean, the walks, the birding, etc., we surely should have a qualified Environmental Officer as part of Bitou Municipality?
This person would be tasked with taking decisions that will protect our area from unscrupulous development, and implementing and upholding the law against uncontrolled alien invasive vegetation, while also looking long-term at future hazardous natural occurrences such as fire and flood.
This is a long letter, I know, but I have written it from the heart and I would dearly love to have a reply from you about its contents. I know that there are a lot of people in our municipality who would be interested to know the answers to my questions.
Helen Mudge, Plett