Two of the fires ‘were arson’

2015-05-12 06:00
The devastation left after the large fires in March, as seen from Boyes Drive.

monique duval

The devastation left after the large fires in March, as seen from Boyes Drive. PHOTO: monique duval

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It seems that the fires that ravaged the southern peninsula in March were started accidentally and on purpose. The different large-scale fires had separate causes, an expert has found.

This is according to a statement by the City of Cape Town.

The City’s fire and rescue service, disaster risk management staff and volunteers, Table Mountain National Park, Working On Fire volunteers, wild land fire services and volunteer wild fire services all came together to minimise the damage and save lives, property and the environment. It is provisionally estimated that it cost the ratepayer between R20m and R40m.

Once the fire had died down, the City commissioned an investigation by local forensic investigator Dr David Klatzow. This was done in order to minimise the possibility of repetition by looking into the cause of the fires. Following are excerpts from his investigative report.

Causes of the fire

“On Sunday 1 March, a fire which appears to have originated at the apex of the mountain peaks above St James in the southern peninsula broke out. It rapidly advanced with a strong south-easterly wind and within a short time had traversed Ou Kaapse Weg and effectively did not stop until reaching Hout Bay.

“Early on in the investigation I had identified the general fire origin as being on the crest of Pecks Valley at a position just out of sight of the road through St James.

“On ascending the peak from Boyes Drive on 19 March, I observed a shelter of sorts with signs of human habitation. There was a partially burned blanket, together with clear signs of fire-making and smoking material and two lighters. There is little doubt that the main fire which burned across to Hout Bay had its origin in or near this rock shelter and that its cause was human agency.

“It is important to note that the other possible causes of fire, weather conditions and absence of electrical causes could be excluded in this case.

“The use of this part of the mountain for various informal activities is well-known to the local inhabitants. Further observations regarding the presence of religious groups on the mountains at night was also provided by residents and a professor of the School of Architecture at the University of Cape Town.

“The possibility that this fire may have been deliberately started cannot be ruled out, but in my view seems unlikely.”

Details of the fires

“Generally, a fire such as that occurring on the mountain above St James will largely conform to the standard burn pattern of fires of its type.

The shape and ferocity of this type of fire is modified both up and down by factors such as exact nature of the fuel source, the topography of the fire terrain and, most importantly, the wind. Generally, a fire will proceed most rapidly in the direction of the prevailing wind.

“Fires spread slowly in a lateral direction and even more slowly against the prevailing wind.

“Given this anatomy of a fire, it is somewhat concerning to note the rapid spread of fire towards the west. In this context, the observations made by a resident of Fish Hoek are most informative. He observed through binoculars that a group of people who were carrying torches were setting fires on the mountainside. They set one fire and when it went out, they returned to re-ignite it. This would be a very plausible explanation for the seemingly rapid spread towards the west which is in contrast to the normal fire pattern expected from the position of the source and the prevailing wind conditions.

“I also considered the fire which occurred along the road out of Scarborough.

This occurred late in the afternoon. Its position and timing suggest very strongly that this is again of human origin. There were no potential electrical causes present.

“It has the typical anatomy of a single origin fire and it can be seen that its origin is a metre or two off the road.

“It is my opinion that the probabilities in this case favour a deliberate human causation.”


. “St James and Southern Peninsula: The fire which started at the top of Pecks Valley above St James was in all probability accidentally caused by vagrants, religious groups or overnight campers.”

. “Clovelly: The fires burning along these slopes were most likely caused by deliberate human agency with the view of starting a large-scale fire.”

. “Scarborough: The fire along Scarborough Road was most likely caused by deliberate human agency with the view of starting a large-scale fire.”

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