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Preventing wildfires through controlled burning of shrubs in at-risk areas is an impractical way to protect cities from fire, according to South Africa’s firefighters.

Members of the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association have clashed with scientists over how best to prevent large-scale wildfires after a March blaze devastated parts of South Africa’s Table Mountain National Park near Cape Town. Over the 13 days it raged before being brought under control, the fire burned nearly 7,000 hectares of park land.

“We need to improve our ability to coexist with fire.”

Jasper Slingsby, South African Environmental Observation Network

Scientists looking after the park have said that backburning — the practice of burning selected areas of local scrubland to prevent the build-up of dry plant matter — should be reinstated to avoid future fires. But firefighters involved in tackling the March blaze say this is too risky.

“Scientists have no operational experience,” says Philip Prins, fire manager for Table Mountain National Park and chairman of the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association. “This park lies in an urban environment. We can’t take any chances. We would be liable.”

Backburning was widely used in South Africa until the 1980s. But new laws then made controlled burning more complicated as park administrators had to obtain permits for smoke pollution and insurance against fire damage to property in case fires got out of control.

“The consequence is that the inevitable wildfire occurs under very dangerous conditions,” says Brian van Wilgen, a scrubland researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “[This is] doing far more damage and generating far more smoke than prescribed burns.”

But those involved in fighting the park’s latest large fire say the conditions for controlled burns only exist in remote parks. Members of the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association warn that Tabletop Mountain National Park is unsuitable for backburning as it is windy and right beside a large city.

“Close to urban areas, it’s a different ball game,” says Prins, who has been a firefighter for 25 years. Following the fire, city officials took a stricter line on existing regulations meant to protect Cape Town from wildfires. The city restricts housing development to areas below Tabletop Mountain’s scrubland vegetation, giving firefighters a fixed line to defend. Planning authorities are also cracking down on people planting alien species in their gardens, which burn faster and hotter than local shrubs.

Meanwhile, the scientists monitoring the park continue to push for the revival of backburning. Jasper Slingsby, a biodiversity scientist and wildfire adviser at the South African Environmental Observation Network, says the Cape’s original inhabitants, the Khoi and San peoples, burned the area every year to renew pastures for their livestock.

“We need to improve our ability to coexist with fire,” he says.