Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on May 1, 2018.

Day Zero

How do you fight wildfires in the face of an acute water shortage? That’s what Cape Town, South Africa, is desperately trying to figure out.

In January, Mayor Patricia de Lille of Cape Town, South Africa, announced that, due to an ongoing regional drought, her city of 4 million was on pace to run out of drinking water. When the city’s water reservoirs reached 13.5 percent of capacity, a day she dubbed “Day Zero,” strict mandatory water rationing would begin. Local officials estimated Day Zero would arrive in mid April.

For a city surrounded by shrub lands and prone to intense wildfires, this alarming fact posed a significant problem for Ian Schnetler, Cape Town’s chief fire officer. On average, Cape Town’s municipal fire department responds to at least one vegetation fire per day. What would happen, I wondered, when the department didn’t have enough water to douse these unwanted wildfires? I visited our South African wildfire partners in March and met with Chief Schnetler to learn more.

While Cape Town is struggling acutely with water scarcity, the issue could likely impact fire departments across the world in the near future. According to the United Nations, by 2030 global demand for fresh water will exceed available capacity by 40 percent. By then, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, many of which will face threats of wildfire. Because of all this, I wondered if Cape Town could provide some lessons about how to cope.

Chief Schnetler told me that his department has done a lot to build its resiliency in this time of water scarcity. While structural fires are usually extinguished with potable municipal hydrant water, the department has taken significant steps to reduce its use of clean water when it comes to wildfire, and one way has simply been to let more wildfires burn, Schnetler told me. Cape Town’s ecology consists largely of unique shrub land that thrives on wildfire to maintain healthy landscapes. In a major cultural shift for the department, wildfires that do not pose a life safety risk are now closely monitored and largely left alone.

For wildfires that do pose a risk to the public, the department has shifted suppression tactics and become more economical in its use of water. The department is using more wildfire-specific foam in its suppression efforts, and when water is needed the department employs new hose techniques that make water application more efficient, the chief said. When it does need to use water for wildfire suppression, the department has turned to an array of nontraditional sources: capturing rain from the roofs of its stations to fill tankers, identifying natural water sources it can pump from, and even utilizing seawater.

Just as the public has been asked to observe the city’s residential conservation efforts, so too has the fire department. Firefighters take short showers, for instance, and the department captures the gray water for reuse in the station.

These steps, along with the overall efforts being enacted across Cape Town, are working, according to Chief Schnetler. Before the mayor’s Day Zero announcement, Cape Town and its surrounding agricultural regions were consuming more than 158,000 gallons of water per day, and the levels of the city’s reservoirs were declining by 1.4 percent each week. Three months later, as of mid-March, consumption was down to as little as 132,000 gallons per day, and Day Zero had been pushed back to August—which officials hope corresponds with the historical start of the region’s rainy season.

If and when water levels return to normal, Schnetler said, the Cape Town Fire Department will continue these conservation efforts. He understands that no matter what happens in the near term, water scarcity in Cape Town will likely be the norm rather than the exception in the future. Preparation, he said, is essential. Many other parts of the planet would be wise to take note.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.