Fire Experiments in Kruger Continue

The first phase of the SavFIRE experiment saw survey teams collect grass data over 80 kilometres at 8 600 points on eight blocks of increasing size. This makes the assessment of the grass sward in preparation for the SavFIRE trial one of the most intensively surveyed trials in South Africa, known to date. Big yellow trucks and eager volunteers in bright yellow shirts mark the onset of the second phase of the experiment, currently underway in the Satara region of the Kruger National Park (KNP).

SavFIRE is the acronym for the Savanna Fire Ignition Research Experiment being conducted in Kruger by Professor Winston Trollope, Working on Fire international associate and Navashni Govender, fire ecologist for the KNP and Working on Fire South Africa. SavFIRE is a five-year experiment investigating the effect of different types of ignition on fire patterns (fire mosaics) of burnt and unburnt areas in the landscape.

It is thought that point ignitions are more natural than perimeter burns and result in a range of diverse habitats and therefore promote biodiversity. Point ignitions however are more difficult to control than perimeter burns and this poses a problem for the rangers who have to apply prescribed fires in the Park as part of their management duties. Point ignitions are generally also more hazardous to rest camps, lodges in the concession areas, other infrastructure and the animals.

SavFIRE is being conducted in three main vegetation types in the Park, the lowveld sour bushveld of the Pretoriuskop area, the knobthorn-marula veld of the Satara region and the mopane veld in the Mopani/Shingwedzi region. Paired plots of increasing size are being burnt simultaneously, so that the weather conditions are the same, in order to compare the effects of the two types of ignition and the effect size of block has on fire behaviour and the resultant fire patterns.

The first phase was successfully conducted in the Pretoriuskop area of the Park in May and June 2007. The analysis of the data collected and the satellite images taken during SavFIRE 2007 plus the insights and on-the-ground experience gained thus far have proved very valuable in comparing the effects of both point and perimeter ignitions.

It is important to know how similar the blocks being burnt are, what types of grass species are growing in the blocks and how much grass fuel is in each block in order to compare the fire behaviour and establish the reasons for the fire patterns. Currently survey teams are out in the hot mid-day sun conducting grass surveys to establish fuel loads, grass species and basal cover.

What motivates the vegetation survey teams?

The roar of a lion not far behind you when you have just been dropped off in the veld at the beginning point of the survey and the vehicle is disappearing in the distance with the other team! The team finished that transect in record time! A very important member of each survey team is the KNP game guard who accompanies the team every time they are working in the veld. Game guards are also allocated to each of the Working on Fire teams burning the firebreaks around the experimental blocks. No one may work in the field without the protection of a game guard as elephant, rhino, lions or buffalo can be unpredictable and dangerous.

The survey teams have had several exciting encounters with inquisitive rhino that have followed them only 40 metres away for a kilometre or more. One group of three rhino, mother, father and baby caused a level of concern - they were not sure if Dad was inquisitive or being protective but he was a bit too close for comfort! Elephant have also caused slight deviations from the transect lines or temporary halts in the team's progress. Buffalo on the plots were carefully watched by everyone until they distanced themselves and the buffalo lost interest.

The camaraderie and dedication of the teams including David and Daphne McNeil and Penelope Trollope from the Eastern Cape, the students from the University of KwaZulu Natal, Michelle and Sandy, the two new volunteers, Caroline and Chantel who used their vacations to trudge through the bush in the hot sun, plus the game guards, Thomas and Joel, as they followed transect lines collecting data was wonderful. The new hand-held CyberTracker instruments purchased by Scientific Services have facilitated the data collection as they have a mapping facility that made it easy to establish GPS points on the map of each block. The transect lines could be drawn in on each block map for the team leader to follow while conducting the surveys.

The Working on Fire crews directed by Bandit Steyn are responsible for burning the fire breaks around all the blocks that have resulted in prime game viewing along the roads, zebras just love toasted grass! To date Bandit's crews have burnt 140 kilometres of firebreaks 100 metres wide without a mishap. This is an incredible achievement considering that often the grass is waist to shoulder height when burning cutlines delineating some of the blocks! It is really impressive to fly over the blocks and see the magnitude of their efforts. Thanks go to Bandit and his teams, they did a sterling job both in 2007 and now in 2008.

During May, Chris Austin from Australia and Alex Held from Germany, of Working on Fire International, will join the SavFIRE teams. Chris will be the incident commander who directs the overall burning operation on the experimental burns and Alex will join Bandit as an operations chief, one controlling the fire team burning on the perimeter burn and the other controlling the point ignition. The fire behaviour will be monitored on the ground by Professor Winston Trollope, Lynne Trollope and Navashni Govender. A spotter plane will assist with directing operations from the air and keeping the incident commander fully informed of the fire dynamics on the ground in both burns during May. Arrangements have been made to obtain satellite images of the fires during SavFIRE to assist with the interpretation of fire behaviour and fire patterns.

The SavFIRE partnership is a highly successful partnership between social upliftment of disadvantaged communities and science and could be considered as a role model both nationally and internationally.

By Lynne Trollope

Kruger National Park - South African Safari