Looking at the Fynbos recovery of the 12 Apostles Fire on Table Mountain

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 3 months post fire - Watsonia tabularis

Within 3 months of the fire, Table Mountain was dotted in orange Watsonia tabularis blooms, a stunningly beautiful Iris. 

Oh how spectacularly the mountain has transformed! From that initial barren moonscape after the fire was extinguished, we now pass through one metre tall vegetation in the wetter parts of the mountain which is densely covered in vibrant greens. The fynbos recovery has been wonderful to watch month on month and the spring season was, as expected, an absolute array of colour!

Each month I revisited the Twelve Apostles range of Table Mountain to observe the fynbos recovery as well as to pay attention to signs of wildlife. This exercise became a personal project in order to share any findings, as well as to further my own knowledge. There were never going to be any significant findings as we are well aware of the essential role that fire plays in the fynbos biome, however this was a look (in a very simplistic manner…read: unscientific!) at the site specific observations in an area that hadn’t had fire in many decades.

At the time of the Twelve Apostles fire, Cape Town, and the Western Cape province, was in the midst of a period of lower than average rainfall (drought). We had had two years of low winter rainfall, and an extended dry summer period through the transition seasons. Albeit started through human negligence along Victoria Drive, the preceding drier conditions resulted in our fire season starting early (and ending late) with a Table Mountain fire occurring the following May…in mid autumn.

12 Apostles Fire - Table Mountain - October 2018 - Justin Hawthorne - Hout Bay

The Twelve Apostles Fire seen moving towards Hout Bay & Llandudno. It never reached the residential areas. 

Here are some of my observations on a fynbos fire…

A patchy fire – not everything burns

There are always pockets of surviving vegetation on rocky peaks, ledges or due to presence of footpaths and jeep tracks…with the slope, wind direction, fire direction and general weather conditions playing a massive role too. Fire burns rapidly up slope, in strong winds, across open mountainside and in mature fynbos vegetation (which has high flammability). Rock is a fire repellent, so when reaching the foot of a cliff, or rocky outcrop, the fire pushes along essentially rounding the rock or shifting direction with the potential to burn out in places. This is why you’ll find unburnt terraces on sheer ledges or a rocky peak that was left unscathed. Often in these areas vegetation has survived more than just this latest burn, and you’ll come across old gnarly shrubs covered in lichens, or even stunted indigenous trees in between the rocky environment.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 1 month post fire - moonscape

In this image looking at the immediate ‘aftermath’ of the fire, you’ll be able to pick out a fair amount of greenery in the rocky foreground, on the ledges of Corridor Buttress (left) and near Frustration Maze (centre). 

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Unburnt Fynbos 3 months post fire

A classic scene of precipitous crags where the odd plant survived on the ledges. A bit further in the distance one can see a whole outcrop which escaped unscathed in the centre of the fire at Kleinkop. 

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Patch of indigenous trees surviving the fire in a rocky scree - 5 months post fire

Indigenous trees survived the fire in among the rock scree along the west facing Twelve Apostles slopes. Note how the ledge the photographer is standing on also shows unburnt fynbos. 

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 5 months after fire with surviving Ice Plant

Unburnt Ice Plants near Llandudno Corner. 

Afromontane Forest – survives fire

Following on from just how rock acts like a barrier, so does our mature Afromontane forest. This indigenous forest develops on cool, shaded and wet slopes of the mountains across Africa, typically in deep gorges where streams flow. A lack of air movement, wetter environment, steep and rocky topography and general lack of vegetation flammability all play a role in its adaptation to repel fire. Take a look at the ravines on the eastern slopes of the Twelve Apostles above Orange Kloof…which clearly show how the fire hits the fringes, burning vulnerable small or isolated trees, but abating abruptly.

12 Apostles Fire - Table Mountain - October 2017 - Justin Hawthorne - Fynbos and Forest Divide

Just after the fire the divide between unburnt Afromontane Forest and the burnt Fynbos covered slopes is clearly visible. 

12 Apostles Fire - Oct 2018 - Justin Hawthorne Orange Kloof

Mimicking the photo taken 1 year prior (above), this image shows the regeneration on the previously blackened slopes. 

 

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 1 month post fire - fynbos and forest interface

Just 1 month after the fire this image shows the new growth on the open slopes, as well as the interface between burnt fynbos covered slopes and the unburnt forest in the lower sections of the ravine. A thin strip of indigenous tree species in the higher reaches did burn in the fire. This is expected where trees (stunted, similar height to surrounding fynbos) are in a narrow strip or isolated. 

Aspect – faster regeneration on the wet & shaded slopes

The cooler, wetter areas of the mountain regenerate at a much faster rate as opposed the the dry west and north facing slopes. On the flats, valleys, gorges and south-facing slopes you’ll notice how much denser the vegetation cover is, how in the early stages of recovery you have rapid growth. This is best seen above the Orange Kloof valley on the east-facing area of the Twelve Apostles, on the Apostles Spine in the vicinity of Grootkop (top of Intake Ravine, southern slopes of Grootkop and the broad flats between Judas Peak and Separation Buttress).

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Fynbos regeneration 11 months post fire

Beautiful scene with young fynbos on the wetter flats of the southern apostles range just 11 months after the big fire. 

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 7 months - South facing cliffs

South facing cliffs showing dense regeneration 7 months after the fire. 

In the southern hemisphere our north facing mountain slopes receive direct sunlight year-round, and our west facing slopes bake in afternoon sun (receiving less precipitation compared to east and south facing slopes too). Of course the aspect plays a large role in which species will grow in each environment (and to what degree), with the harsher slopes seeing sparser and shorter vegetation cover typically. To best see the slow recovery we look across the low granitic slopes all the way between Llandudno and Bakoven, the sheer west-facing slopes in the Pimple Traverse vicinity as well as severely exposed and steep slopes in Oudekraal Ravine which are north-west facing.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 3 months post fire - Granite slopes

The west facing granitic lower slopes of the Twelve Apostles with slow regeneration 3 months after the fire. 

12 Apostles Fire - Oct 2018 - Justin Hawthorne Oudekraal Ravine 1 Year post fire

One year after the fire, the steep north facing slopes of Oudekraal Ravine are barren from afar. 

Pioneers – maturing rapidly after a burn

Pioneer species come up quickly after a fire and flower profusely which not only provides food for birds and insects, but also ends up resulting in large seed production. These species mature rapidly and cover exposed soil, helping to prevent erosion, and will be dominant in the early years after a burn. These pioneers will eventually have less of a presence…until the next burn!

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 7 months post fire - Pioneers

Bracken Ferns among others dominate this east facing slope shortly after the fire. 

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 11 Months post fire - Scenecio rigidus

Senecio rigidus in profusion after the fire. 

Tree Proteas – mechanisms to survive in a fire prone region

Fire surviving tree proteas, namely Mimetes fimbriifolious, Leucospermum conocarpodendron, Leucadendron argenteum and Protea nitida can be seen to have largely survived this particular fire. They all have thick, cork-like bark which can withstand low intensity fynbos fires and as such continue to flower in their normal season providing food for birds, mammals and insects alike while other re-seeding protea species slowly mature in the early years after a burn.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Mimetis fimbriifolius in flower

Mimetes fimbriifolius survives fire, as a tree protea, and flowers in its normal season. 

Apostles Fire - Tree Pincushion - 2 months post fire

This is a brilliant example of how Tree Pincushions survive a fynbos fire. Taken 2 months after the fire this image shows the tree proteas in flower surrounded by a burnt landscape with early regeneration visible. 

Geophytes & re-sprouters – the first signs of new life

A wildfire brings out waves of intense colour, and largely this is centered around geophytes which do not die in fire as they’re safely below the earths surface. We know that apart from rocky outcrops, isolated pockets of unburnt fynbos and indigenous forest, there are only tree proteas which dot the mountainsides. The fire returns nutrients to the poor soils and opens up space, allowing bulbs take advantage of the sudden available sunlight. Species such as Cyrtanthus ventricosus bloom immediately after fire – the only time this member of the Amaryllis family flowers. Re-sprouters coppice from the base, with green foliage visible within a month or so in some species (think of Protea cynaroides), re-seeders germinate en masse and slowly thin out through competition.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - coppicing King Protea 3 months post fire

King Protea (re-sprouting)

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 11 months post fire - Coppicing Protea speciosa

Brown-beard Sugarbush (re-sprouting)

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 10 months post fire - Orchid

Schizodium obliquum (geophyte)

12 Apostles Fire - Oct 2018 - Justin Hawthorne Gladiolus carneus (Painted Lady)

Painted Lady (geophyte)

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 11 months post fire - Spring Fynbos

Moraea (geophyte)

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Aristea spiralis - 11 months post fire

Aristea spiralis (rhizomatous)

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Watsonia and Restio 7 months old

Watsonia (geophyte)

Lack of Erica’s – bar one, the Fire Heath

With exception of the stunningly beautiful Erica cerinthoides, aptly named the Fire Heath, there is a distinct lack of presence within the Erica family in the immediate year post-fire. The Fire Heath is the first Erica to bloom just a few months after a fire as it re-sprouts from a woody root stock, whereas the bulk of Erica species are re-seeders, germinating after a fire and thus taking time to mature and thus flower. This will change soon and we should get a good presence of Erica species in the coming years.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 11 Months post fire - Fire Heath

Erica cerinthoides, the Fire Heath, re-sprouts after a fire and is in bloom within 3 months. 

Wildlife – some perish, others take advantage

Undoubtedly animals fall victim to wildfires. And this particular burn in early-spring potentially had a bigger impact than a late-summer fire. There would have been many vulnerable young life in the forms of unfledged chicks in nests, new born antelope and caracal kittens which may have fallen victim among numerous others. Wildlife perseveres and manages to find protected shelter or flee a wildfire – they can cope with these environmental stresses and disasters and have been doing so for thousands of years.

The biggest impact is fire interval: too regular a fire can be detrimental to animal populations (as well as flora). Fynbos fires ideally occur in at least 12 year old vegetation…a 12-25 year bracket is healthy. With regard to this particular fire it was long overdue and would have had very little negative impact on wildlife populations as fire has not occurred here in decades. Herbivores, and omnivores, take advantage of recently burnt areas where they have nutrient rich young vegetation to browse, graze and forage. From Cape Grysbok to Klipspringers, Chacma Baboons (not with this particular fire) to Porcupines, they all take advantage post-fire. Ravens move in and look for signs of life such as tortoises, Rock Kestrels scan the scorched earth looking for any movement of rodent or reptile, and caracals move in to hunt anything with a pulse.

Through the year I regularly encountered Klipspringers, saw evidence of porcupine, caracal, mongoose, dassie and lizards.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Klipspringer

A beautiful Klipspringer which had just moved from the young fynbos at the northern edge of the burn area into old fynbos. 

Erosion – depletion of the seed bank & the infamous Himalayan Tahr

Significantly heavy rains soon after fire, before pioneer establishment, can result in landslips and major soil erosion which essentially depletes the seed bank and negatively impacts on biodiversity. On Table Mountain a faunal impact is worth considering: the Himalayan Tahr. Roaming the steep cliff faces and terraces of the upper sandstone levels exists a population of exotic ungulates. They, just like indigenous grazers and browsers, move into recently burnt areas to feed on all the new growth and importantly where there are herds the effect can be significant, resulting in exposed soils to potentially wash away with seed bank destruction. An individual, much like thinking of a lone pine tree, has little impact on the environment. The concern is when population numbers are high there is increased risk of erosion and risk of endemic floral species losses. A note worth remembering is that synchronised with the tahrs escaping onto Table Mountain was the last Cape leopard sighting near Hout Bay in the 1930’s and as such there is no predator to the tahrs here on Table Mountain.

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - Himalayan Tahr

A young Himalayan Tahr (photograph predates the fire).

Head onto the Twelve Apostles to admire the young Fynbos!

To book a guided hike across the 12 Apostles, taking a closer look at this regenerating region, contact Justin Hawthorne via justinhawthorneblog@gmail.com

The best time to be hiking here is between August – December, so get in touch to start planning now!

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - October 2017 pre fire

What the southern Twelve Apostles looked like a week before the big fire of October 2017.

*This blog post is based on personal observations. 

More info on the Twelve Apostles fire

In mid-October 2017 the Twelve Apostles range of Table Mountain burnt over the course of 5 days in dense alien vegetation on the privately owned lower slopes and in old stands of fynbos within the Table Mountain National Park.  It was a somewhat unusual fire in that it occurred in spring, before the typical Cape fire season. No human life was lost, and no notable damage to infrastructure was suffered. At the end of the day what we know as the #12ApostlesFire was a good ecological burn. I have been monitoring the fynbos regeneration and wildlife activity within the fire affected region and regularly visit the Twelve Apostles to observe changes to the landscape.

The Slopes Of Table Mountain Burn can be viewed HERE

The Night Scene Above Hout Bay can be viewed HERE

The Burnt Western Slopes can be viewed HERE

The Fire And Forest Divide can be viewed HERE

1 Month Update can be viewed HERE

2 Month Update can be viewed HERE

3 Month Update can be viewed HERE

4 Month Update can be viewed HERE

5 Month Update can be viewed HERE

6 and 7 Month Update can be viewed HERE

8 Month Update can be viewed HERE

9 Month Update can be viewed HERE

10 Month Update can be viewed HERE

11 Month Update can be viewed HERE

12 Month Update can be viewed HERE

12 Apostles Fire - Justin Hawthorne - 11 months post fire - Fynbos regeneration

Regeneration of fynbos within 1 year of fire. 

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