Research & Development, Working On Fire International, South Africa
I am a bred and born South African, my ancestors having settled in South Africa from England in 1820. I was born in 1940 and grew up on a farm in the Komga district in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. After completing my schooling I enrolled at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg in 1959 where I obtained a BSc Agric. (1962), MSc Agric. (1971) and PhD (1984) majoring in Rangeland Science. My interest in fire ecology was kindled by Professor J.D. Scott at the University of Natal, who was one of the pioneers in fire research in South Africa. Arising from this interest and as part of my responsibilities as Pasture Officer in the Ciskei region of South Africa, I identified the encroachment of undesirable plant species into natural rangeland as one of the main problems facing the livestock industry in this region. This focus formed part of my MSc project where I studied the encroachment and control of macchia vegetation in the mountainous areas of the Eastern Cape Province. I concluded that fire was the most effective, practical and economic method of controlling macchia vegetation and I was able to formulate burning programmes that have been and are continuing to be successfully applied throughout the mountain ranges of this region. I was awarded a M.Sc.(Agric) degree in 1971 for this work and received international recognition by being invited to deliver a paper at the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Congress on “Fire in Africa” held in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1971. Attending this conference proved to be a turning point in both my research career and fire ecology in South Africa, as it became apparent to me that we in Africa had completely ignored the effects of type and intensity of fire on the vegetation, having focussed only on the effects of season and frequency of burning. This realization led to an investigation, as part of my PhD, on the effects of type and intensity of fire on the grass and tree components of the vegetation in African savannas. This research has resulted in a greater understanding of the role of fire in savanna ecosystems and a significant improvement in the use of fire as a range management practice for both domestic livestock systems and wildlife management.
Since the recent political changes in South Africa I have been fortunate enough to be able to extend my research interests further afield in Africa viz. I have initiated studies on the fire ecology of grassland and savanna ecosystems in the central highlands of Kenya, the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti in Tanzania, the Caprivi Region of Namibia, the Gile National Reserve in Mozambique and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. One of the highlights has also been travelling to the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas, USA in 2003 where with my wife Lynne and two students from the University of Fort Hare I conducted a project comparing the behaviour of fires in tall grass prairies with the fire behaviour in African grasslands and savannas. In more re4cent times I have been the research leader in developing “open ended fire breaks” involving applying ignition capsules from a helicopter in the late afternoon just before sunset resulting in a slow moving smoky fire that is extinguished by the resultant dew several hours later. This technique has been successfully applied in the Kruger National Park. Another major development is the development of an adapted procedure for assessing veld condition using the point centred quarter method developed by Cottam & Curtis in the United States. This has resulted in a simplified and rapid technique that generates field data for formulating veld management practices like prescribed burning and the use of a practical means of monitoring veld condition in African grasslands and savannas used for domestic livestock production and wildlife management. Finally a current research trial is being conducted to generate high intensity fires using multiple ignitions applied from a helicopter under mild weather conditions suitable for controlling bush encroachment when the associated risk of wild fires is greatly reduced.
PAST & PRESENT POSITIONS