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Cape fire: Life bursts from the ashes

The fire which swept across the Southern Peninsula might have seemed destructive, but it is already bringing new life to the region.

A protea in the process of shedding its seeds in the Silvermine nature reserve a week after a large fire swept through the area in March 2015. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN

CAPE TOWN - Vast stretches of charred fynbos stand reaching into the sky with blackened arms. Bald patches of sand have replaced lush vegetation, transforming the landscape from a plethora of green hues to a dull monochrome graveyard.

The 6,900 hectares burnt by the Cape Peninsula fire last week seem like a decimated wasteland to the untrained eye.

But where some see death, Carly Cowell sees life.

The SANParks regional ecologist understands better than most the positive effects of fire and its intimate relationship with the fauna and flora of the region.

"It's clean and it's what the fynbos needs," she explains.

And nature is punctuating her statement.

It has only been a week since the fire swept through the Silvermine Nature Reserve and green shoots are already visible among the skeletons of the adult plants.

First in line are the bulbs, which have storage organs underground that allow them to burst into life almost immediately after the fire. Hot on their heels are some Protea species, which have been keeping tightly held secrets, waiting for this exact moment before relinquishing their seeds to the wind and rain.

"At times like these nature does seem cruel, but this is the natural process," Cowell explains as she kneels next to an empty tortoise shell.

"These animals have been here and survived for millennia."

Eggs that have been lying underground will give rise to a throng of new hatchlings that will soon be roaming the reserve.

Sunrise seen from the Silvermine Nature Reserve a week after the fire swept through the area. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN.

Through Cowell's eyes, the landscape is suddenly teeming with life. Some bushy, golden seeds have already nestled into sandy rock crevices, ants swarm on the ground and the tracks around the empty tortoise shell show signs of an array of small visitors.

But though nature is clearly resilient, the process which is now underway remains a sensitive one.

Table Mountain National Park announced on Thursday that the Silvermine and Tokai sections of the park will remain closed to the public until further notice.

The decision is bound to frustrate hikers and park users, but ecologists understand that it is vital for the protection of the environment.

Cowell wipes away the thin layer of white sand to reveal dark, peaty soil.

"The soils in fynbos are very sandy and they're nutrient poor," she explains.

"What we actually find after fire, is the top surface of all the leaf litter gets burnt and then that actually releases the nutrients into the soils. And if we walk on it we actually trample that and that whole process is a very sensitive system."

An additional concern is that the disturbance of the soil will contribute to run-off, as rainwater that may not sink into the soil can lead to mudslides.

The park says the closure of the burnt areas will be continually assessed, but warns that for some areas this could take up to two years before visitors are allowed.

In the meantime ecologists like Cowell will closely monitor the natural processes currently underway, learning what they can from the demise and rise of the kingdom's plants and animals.

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