The fire began at night. Fuelled by the heat of Cape Town’s hottest ever recorded day and stoked by gale force winds, it rampaged across the middle of the Cape Peninsula from coast to coast. Five thousand hectares of mountain vegetation were incinerated as were several homes; Cape Town and Table Mountain escaped the fire but smoke hung in the air for days afterwards and ash coated parked cars.
At first sight, the burnt mountain landscape is shocking. Gone are the carpets of green and yellow protea bushes; their charcoal skeletons are all that remains. Every other plant has vanished. Days later, smoke still rises from burning underground stumps – it is quite literally scorched earth.
Yet the landscape is beguilingly beautiful. The colours are dull gold, red-brown and every shade of grey. Soot-black branches are etched against a white sand background; protea seed heads have exploded open like rusty grenades, once-hidden rock formations are revealed.
And there is still life. Sheltered pockets of unburned fynbos are full of birds, and the mountain’s indigenous forests have survived, as they always do behind their thick green canopy. And incredibly, just five days after the first flames, the first signs of re-growth are visible. Green shoots push out from blackened tufts.
Fire, far from being the agent of destruction here, is the provider of life. If you strip away the human element – the tragic destruction of property and the cost of fire fighting – then from an ecological point of view, the show has just begun.
Every plant in this landscape was waiting for this fire. Each species in the fynbos has evolved not only to survive repeated fires but some actively use the mechanics of fire in their own life cycle. Some plants wait out the summer fire season underground as bulbs; others have fire-proof roots or bark. Many buds are triggered into germination by the chemicals in smoke; some seeds are too, but only after they’ve arranged to be transported safely underground by ants. Other seeds, carried through the air by their hairy parachute, settle in wind-blown drifts.
And it’s a race too. By burning away the smothering layer of old and dead plants, the fire has cleared the mountains of all competition and its ash contains a much needed boost of nutrients. The rains will begin in a few months by which time we’ll have seen colourful waves of fire-driven specialists from the amaryllis, orchid, daisy and iris families, taking advantage of the open season. Black stumps will soon burst into greenery, new branches will grow and carpets of flowers will soon coat the landscape. Within five years it will be green; by ten the mountains will look similar to what they did before the fire. After 15 to 20 years it will be ready to burn again.
I’ll be going regularly into the post-fire mountains over the coming years and posting blogs on the recovery of the fynbos. Stand by for the show.