In the wake of the devastating Free State wildfires, farmers are calling for an urgent disaster declaration following the single biggest fire event recorded in the province.
The runaway veldfires, which is being described as “extremely dangerous”, started on Monday, 12 July at approximately 11:00, 22km south of Petrusburg. It has left over 104 000 hectares of farmland burned to the ground.
This is according to official figures released by the Free State Umbrella Fire Protection Association.
In total, 396 farm portions were burned by the fire which raged for over 27 hours. Thirty-five of those farms burned down completely, while 134 farms burned 90% of their surface area, and 216 farms burned more than 50%.
Meanwhile, Free State Agriculture (FSA) has estimated the cost in loss of grazing pasture to be R345.5 million. In addition to this, there is an early estimate of livestock and infrastructure loss amounting to R33.5 million.
Dr Jack Armour, FSA’s commercial manager, says they are not calling for a disaster declaration to get financial assistance from the state. Instead, he explains that a disaster declaration will also help affected farmers in other ways.
“We were very disappointed to hear the province wasn’t planning to declare a provincial disaster. So, we have put pressure on the district municipality disaster management committee to declare a district disaster,” Armour tells Food For Mzansi.
Declaration will help
Since mid-May to mid-July, over 250 000 hectares have been destroyed in the south-western Free State alone.
During the same extremely high fire danger hazard period, 9 948 hectares burnt near Fauresmith, while another 9 080 hectares burnt in the Mangaung metropolitan municipality around Thaba Nchu.
On Friday, 21 May, two separate wildfires burnt over 30 000 hectares southwest of Boshof in the Tokologo Local Municipality.
Armour emphasises the devastating impact of the wildfires on local, district and provincial economies in a letter to the Kopanog and Xhariep district municipalities as well as key provincial government departments. He includes the impact on job creation.
Armour states while FSA is aware that government does not have funds, a declaration will mean MUCH MORE to AFFECTED farmers.
“Where a disaster has been declared, an exemption on municipal property rates may be granted [by] the local municipality in which the affected property owner has property and applies for such,” Armour explains.
Furthermore, where property owners suffer severe damage and loss of income, a disaster declaration assists in getting finance to rebuild the business or get bridging finance to weather the months until an income can be obtained again, Armour says.
He adds, “A disaster declaration can also serve as a bargaining document to prove why payments could not be made to life assurance, policies, leases, loan repayments, etc.”
‘Meagre’ departmental purse
Responding to Food For Mzansi’s questions, the Free State department of agriculture and rural development says they could assist affected farmers with protein-based pellets from its “meagre budget that is available”.
While the department did not explain how else it would be assisting farmers who have lost their livelihoods, agriculture spokesperson Zimasa Mbewu says they have drafted a request to declare a provincial disaster.
This, after a presentation to the executive council of the province regarding the wildfires.
“Only the provincial department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs can declare a disaster. Once declaration has been granted, an approach to the provincial treasury for funds will be made,” says Mbewu.
In the meantime, the department says it is working closely with other stakeholders and have distributed assessment forms to farmers who have been badly affected.
This, according to Mbewu, is the normal procedure that the department undertakes in the case of a disaster.
“There are, meanwhile, good stories of farmers who are assuring each other with fodder, as there is quite a lot of fodder available in the country because of the good rains. So, some farmers are receiving assistance already from fellow farmers,” Mbewu states.