Wildfire affecting urban areas at the wildland urban interface (WUI) is a growing global concern, where management is important for urban residents as well as wildland vegetation. We used a socio-ecological system perspective to investigate the interactions of urban land with a fire-dependent wildland in South Africa’s City of Cape Town (CoCT). We examined changes in population growth, land cover change and related WUI footprint, occurrence of large fires, and related policies over time. We used Landsat data to track changes over the period 1990–2019 in the formal and informal urban and wildland footprint, census data to track changes in population, and difference normalised burn ratio and MODIS burned area product to track large fires. The urban footprint has expanded greatly and through consolidation has led to the reduction of the WUI. Furthermore, evidence points to an increase in fire suppression, even though national policies ask for wildfires to run their course where possible and appropriate. As a result of pressure from urban residents, local managers prefer short term fire suppression to long term risk reduction for urban areas and ecological management of wildland. Framing the problem as a socio-ecological system enabled us to highlight how WUI management is a product of interaction between urban development, wildland type and policies. Our findings emphasise the point that wildland management is driven by urban residents and local municipalities, with national fire and disaster management policies not fully implemented.