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By Ilse de Lange


State faces R17.7m damages claim resulting from veld fire

The government allegedly failed to call in assistance and aerial firefighting resources in time.

The rural development minister, Mpumalanga provincial government, trustees of the Pilgrims Rest Development Trust and a local communal property association are facing a R17.7 million damages claim resulting from a devastating veld fire.

The fire had destroyed hundreds of hectares of plantations four years ago. York Timbers instituted the massive damages claim in the High Court in Pretoria after the fire – which allegedly started on government-owned land near Pilgrims Rest in Mpumalanga in August 2013 – had spread to their London plantation and destroyed large areas of commercial pine.

The company claimed damages to its agricultural business had been caused by negligence, as the government parties did not take adequate steps to control or prevent the start of veld fires on their land, or to prevent them from spreading to neighbouring properties.

They allegedly failed to detect and extinguish veld fires when the fires were still small, failed to ensure that the government property had proper firebreaks and fire belts and failed to do controlled block burning or to ensure that the property was properly equipped with fire-fighting equipment and staff.

The government allegedly also failed to implement a management system designed to ensure that veld fires would not start or spread from its property, and had allowed excessive fuel loads to amass on the farm. The government allegedly also failed to call in assistance and aerial firefighting resources in time.

York Timbers maintained the government knew that the forestry industry was particularly threatened by fires in Mpumalanga, which annually destroy hundreds of hectares of plantations, and that the danger increased in dry and windy conditions. This made the build-up of high fuel loads on a property extremely dangerous.

The minister and provincial government in court papers denied they had been in control of the farms on which the fire started, or that they had caused the fire to be uncontrolled and to spread, or that government employees had been negligent.

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