Knysna fires: Two years on

The report says more fire risk assessments must be done in communities that border wildlife and it has also found that more should be done to control fire-prone alien vegetation around communities.

Firefighters keep flames from homes in Buffalo Bay, Knysna. Pictures: Thomas Holder/EWN

JOHANNESBURG – This week marked two years since the devastating Knysna fires that killed seven people and left many homeless two years ago.

Last year around this time, a year after the fires, hundreds of families affected by the disaster were still being assisted.

According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Knysna fires were the worst wildfire disaster in South African history. The report found that the fires' severity was caused by a cocktail of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel.

The blaze crippled the Garden Route town and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. The municipality at the time said despite good progress over the past year, there was still a lot more rebuilding left.

Officials said the fires destroyed 973 formal houses and about 150 informal structures. Forty-five RDP homes were also affected.

Following conflicting reports on what might have caused the fire, forensic experts also weighed in. Forensic scientist David Klatzow criticised the Knysna fire department's report into the fires, saying it was based on presumptuous inferences.

The fire department's report said human activity may be to blame for the fires. That contrasted with Klatzow's report, which stated that the initial fire was started by a lightning strike months before the fires that subsequently devastated Knysna. He said that contrary to speculation, the fire was sparked by a lightning strike that smouldered until heavy winds fanned it into a full-blown wildfire.

His investigation was commissioned by lobby group AfriForum. Klatzow said while multiple fires broke out at the same time, the Knysna blaze caused the most damage. Insurance claims that resulted from the 2017 wildfires in Knysna amounted to around R2.5 billion.

[WATCH] Knysna fires that claim homes two in 2017 but not hope

Meanwhile, an in-depth independent report by short-term insurer Santam into the devastating fires has found that the risk of so-called mega-fires recurring in South Africa remains high.

The report said more fire risk assessments must be done in communities that border wildlife and it has also found that more should be done to control fire-prone alien vegetation around communities.

This was highlighted as a key contributing factor to the spread of the 2017 wildfires.

The report also puts a focus on reducing fuel loads, like vegetation and debris, and calls for greater capacity to respond to wildfires.

The report, The Knysna Fires of 2017: Learning from this disaster, makes a number of recommendations for government, communities, the insurance industry and other stakeholders towards minimising the risk of future mega-fires – and sets out the remedial steps to be taken in reducing the social and financial impact of such disasters should they occur.

Key among these recommendations are:

• Managing or controlling the presence of fire-prone vegetation and other combustible or flammable material on tracts of land, usually referred to as fuel loads;

• Attending to all fire callouts - even if they don’t appear threatening; greater focus on public education and awareness programmes on the risks associated with wildfires; and

• Better management and control of fuel loads on municipal land - especially along wildland-urban interfaces.

[Watch] Strong winds fan flames in Knysna in 2017

The report urged the insurance industry to help build the capacity of municipal fire services to deal with wildfire prevention and response.

“Insurers can help by requiring policy-holders to undertake measures to reduce risk – for example reducing flammable materials and creating defensible spaces around homes.”

Another key recommendation was that insurers develop more affordable insurance products for the "missing middle" - households that are not sufficiently impoverished to be supported by government welfare but who are not able to afford insurance.

The report also encouraged all residents to regularly check that they are adequately insured against fire.