Underground fires have been smouldering for more than a month in sections of the Onrus River Peat Wetland area, which is situated on the Camphill School and Farm Community property.
A Section 30A emergency directive was approved by the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning on Thursday, 14 February 2019.
This emergency application enables the Camphill Farm Community to proceed with implementation of emergency works to isolate the subsurface fire in order to prevent its spread and ensure its termination to preserve the remaining peat wetland and eliminate the source of risk to human health and safety and property.
The Fire Department has confirmed the fire is extremely dangerous. Because of the intensity and depth of the fire, it is practically impossible to douse it with water or in a manner that is not harmful to the environment. This situation is beyond conventional fire service tactics.
In the event that no interventions are undertaken, the possibility exists that some may only become visible over time, even many months and it will remain a continuous fire hazard.
If urgent interventions are implemented, it will be possible to preserve the peat wetland. In an effort to assist the Landowner, the Overstrand Municipality’s Environmental Section has consulted with wetland specialists at National and Provincial level, as well as Cape Nature, Working on Wetlands and SANBI to ascertain the best course of action to contain the fire.
The proposed emergency work will entail the following:
- The excavation of a trench, approximately 200m in length, across the peat wetland and another downstream of the fire, if peat occurs downstream.
- Determination of the depth and condition of the peat. This will enable identification of the type of equipment to be used for the excavations, and whether a back actor (digger loader) or labour is to be utilised.
- Should this be required, the Overstrand Municipality will provide a digger loader to assist with implementation of the intervention, if the machine is not suitable, other means will have to be used.
The landowner, together with the DEA and SANBI will ensure the monitoring of the activity, thereby overseeing the emergency works to ensure that these activities are undertaken in an environmentally sound manner and the Environmental Section has agreed to monitor from the Municipality's side.
It is important to note that DEA will make funding available for the rehabilitation of the wetland after the appropriate measures have been taken to implement the emergency procedure.
DEADP has also requested that the site be photographed by using an aerial infrared camera using thermal imaging periodically over the next three months to determine if the sub-surface fire continues to spread or has been contained.
On 30 January 2019 the Overstrand Municipality’s Fire Department and the Environmental Section conducted an investigation of various affected areas of the recent Karwyderskraal/Hemel-en-Aarde fire, including the smouldering sites along the Onrus River in close proximity to the Camphill School and Camphill Farm Community.
The sub-surface fire along this section of the Onrus River has been burning since 11 January 2019. The Overstrand Fire Department advised that they are unable to extinguish the fire.
Further inspection revealed the implications and significant negative impacts occuring on the wetland system. This wetland is characterised as the only remaining piece of palmiet vegetation wetland, which plays a critical role in the functioning of the Onrus River and the Onrus Estuary and is of considerable ecological importance and must therefore be protected.
In addition, the smouldering fire is creating a substantial amount of smoke that is significantly affecting air quality in the area and having a detrimental effect on the health of individuals within the community and the school, necessitating the temporary relocation of the learners to alternative accommodation.
Wetland - benefits
The Onrus River is an important feeder of the Onrus Estaury, which in turn is an important estuary for recreational activities for the surrounding community. The remaining wetland is currently the only natural filtering system that still keeps the estuary in balance.
Unfortunately this estuary's balance is easily tipped because it is such a small catchment that is heavily infested by invasive alien plant species, the existence of the De Bos Dam upstream which is the drinking water for the town of Hermanus and the multitude of agricultural activities upstream from the De Bos Dam.
The sub-surface fire currently smouldering at the foot-end of the wetland could result in an ecological disaster if the site is not protected and mitigating factors implemented to stop the fire from spreading into the palmiet vegetation.