How homeowners can help reduce fire dangers

As SA continues to experience its worst drought in decades, runaway fires are taking an increasing toll on people, animals and properties around the country – and farmers and foresters are not the only ones who need to be better prepared, says Richard Gray, CEO of Harcourts Real Estate.

“In the past three months alone, several people have lost their lives in veld fires in the Free State, the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. Dozens more people have been injured and hundreds of animals have suffered too as thousands of hectares of grazing and bush have been burnt.

“Out-of-control fires have also caused many deaths and destroyed scores of homes in informal settlements, traditional villages, upmarket estates and holiday resorts. Municipal firefighters and the Working on Fire teams have done a wonderful job to contain the losses in all these situations, but prevention is always better than cure, and there is much that homeowners can do to protect their own families and properties.”

In more remote areas where there is a serious danger of veld fires due to the dry conditions, he says, homeowners should start by regularly cutting back and removing all grass, trees branches and other combustible material to create a “safety zone” of about 20 to 30m around the home.

“They should also try to have a dedicated firehose that reaches to every part of their property and is permanently connected to a reliable outside water source such as a dam or rainwater tank with a pump - and ensure that everyone on the property knows where it is kept and how it works.

“If the roof is thatched, wetting it thoroughly is the best way to prevent it from catching alight during a fire. A rooftop drencher system is very effective, but failing that, and if you have time, it should be thoroughly doused with a hose.”

However, says Gray, what is most important is that everyone on the property understands the serious danger that veld fires pose, knows how to contact the local fire-fighting team and especially has been taught the drill for getting out and away safely when an out-of-control fire poses a sudden threat.

“Similarly, if there is advance warning of fire spreading to the area and you are advised to evacuate your property, your first response should be to make sure that everyone is together and wearing protective clothing, that you have emergency supplies such as drinking water with you, and that you let someone outside the danger area know that you are leaving and where you are planning to go.”

In more urbanised areas and informal settlements, he notes, the biggest fire hazards are electrical faults and open flames on candles, gas appliances, paraffin stoves and cooking and braai fires, and none of these should ever be left unattended or used without adult supervision.

“Homeowners should always ensure that all open flames are extinguished before everyone goes to sleep, that all gas cylinders used for cooking and other purposes are firmly turned off, and that paraffin stoves and heaters are preferably removed outdoors.

“If there is an internal fireplace or a coal stove on the property, homeowners must make sure the flue and chimney are kept in good repair, and that there is a fireproof area in front of the fireplace so that hot embers that fall out of the grate can’t start a fire.”

And since electrical faults are also a major cause of home fires, Gray says, homeowners should not forget to check the state of the electrical wiring regularly, ensure that any frayed appliance cords are replaced and refrain from overloading plug sockets.


“Once again, though, what is most important is to make sure that everyone in the family knows exactly what they should do to get out and stay safe if there is a fire.”

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