Highveld fire season – awareness and prevention is critical

Agriculture

Highveld fire season – awareness and prevention is critical

Published: 16 September 2016

Cape Town, 16 September 2016: The South African Weather Service has warned of expected high fire danger conditions over many parts of the country, which poses considerable risks to life, property, livestock and crops and the natural environment.

“In addition, the drought conditions in South Africa have meant that veld grasses did not grow as fast or as thick as usual, which does not reduce the risk of fire, but results in fire spreading far more quickly.  Taking precautions against the spread of wildfires and protecting one’s assets and property should therefore be a high priority for those living within high-risk fire areas,” says Gerhard Diedericks, head: Santam Agri.

“The on-going drought has left many hectares of grazing land extremely dry increasing the risk of fire. Additional destruction to grazing pastures could put livestock in real danger of starvation, the resulting financial loss further impacting an agricultural sector already hard hit by the drought,” says Diedericks. 

In 2015, Santam paid out close to R82 million in claims to policyholders to recover losses due to uncontrolled fires and damage to property. For the first half of 2016, Santam paid out R32.2 million in similar claims.“Fires can start very easily on farms and the resulting damages can run into millions of Rands in insurance claims”, says Diedericks. These claims typically deal with the legal liability of the farmer/property owner in the instance of a fire (whether started intentionally or accidentally) spreading onto a neighbouring property and causing damages.

To cite a recent example, an employee on a sheep farm used a bush cutter (similar to the weed eaters used in home environments, but with steel blades) to clear a thicket on the insured’s farm. A stone caught in the blades of the bush cutter causing a spark and subsequent blaze. The employee did not immediately notice the fire and also did not have fire-fighting equipment at the scene. As a result, the fire spread to neighbouring premises where the buildings and contents of a guesthouse were severely damaged. As a result, a third party claim requesting compensation of about R4 million from the farmer was lodged.

National Veld and Forest Fire Act

Diedericks explains that the National Veld and Forest Fire Act of 1998 is important to the South African agricultural environment, farmers have also become much more aware of the implications of fire on their operations and livelihood. “We constantly create awareness of the Act and it is important that farmers remember that the Act holds the landowner liable for any damages or injuries occurring as a result of fire spreading from the owner’s farm.

“Whilst this strict liability is removed if the farmer is a member of the local Fire Protection Association (FPA), claims from affected third parties are usually intense and unpleasant, irrespective of whether the farmer holds sufficient legal liability insurance cover. An FPA is formed by landowners within the same area, to predict, prevent, manage and extinguish veld, forest and mountain fires.

Santam encourages the establishment and membership of FPAs - and as an incentive, will reward clients who are members of FPAs with more competitive insurance premiums in the form of discounted rates and premium and excess incentives.

“Most farmers have to take precautions against fire, but insurance against fire is not a one-size-fits-all model,” says Diedericks. Farmers need insurance against fire damage to crops, assets as well as natural rangeland and pastures. A farmer’s own property (e.g. buildings, sheds and the contents of such) are insured against fire damage under a Material Damage Section (e.g. the Fire, Building Combined or Office Contents Section), however farmers must also ensure they have cover where the fire spreads from their land onto neighbouring property. Insurance for any legal liability for injury to others or the property of others arising from such a fire can be taken out as an extension of public liability cover. 

“Most Agricultural insurance policies exclude the legal liability for the spread of fire due to the high risk involved, but cover can usually be purchased for an additional premium. Farmers must make sure that they specifically request cover for fire spreading to plantations or sugar cane if they are in the vicinity of these, as most standard spread of fire extensions do not include fire to plantations and sugar cane in view of the high intensity and cost of such a fire,” concludes Diedericks.

Santam policyholders are reminded that they can speak to their broker, call Santam’s 24/7 claims and emergency helpline 0860 505 911 or lodge a query via the Santam client site or Santam app