Cape Town - A spark was all that was needed for a massive fire which left seven people dead in Knysna to rage out of control as conditions were ideal, said Knysna chief fire services officer Colin Manuel on Monday.
Presenting his investigation into the causes of the fire that led to the evacuation of the town and the damage and destruction to about 1000 houses, he blamed the humble pine cone, often used as kindling, as the probable cause of one of the country's most devastating fires.
After studying scorch patterns, burn scar, fire patterns, wind direction and speed, he concluded that the upside down pine cones found in a clearing on a farm in Elandskraal had probably been used to light one of the three fires that caused havoc in the region.
A lengthy investigation which started on June 8 from a Huey helicopter and then continued on foot on the ground managed to rule out other theories. The predominant ones were that it was caused by an unattended underground fire first reported on May 10; that arsonists were at play; or that an April lightning strike started it.
All of his investigations led him back to the clearing in Elandskraal, which was easily accessible, with signs of human activity around.
"Somebody probably made a fire at the bottom there," he said of the clearing.
"The probable cause comes down to that pine cone and the stacked heavy materials at the bottom there."
He said there was no evidence that the blaze was deliberate as a small fire may just have run out of control.
But somebody would have had to bring the pine cones in because there are no pine trees growing in the area.
Strangely, they also found a charred branch of a tree that was out of place in the area, another indication that somebody had brought it into the clearing, and also support for his theory that there had been other fires in the clearing.
A second fire, at Kruisfontein, also outside Knysna, was probably also man-made, he said.
This was after they found evidence that somebody had been sleeping in the bush, and authorities reported having problems with this person for a while.
He did not elaborate on a third fire, which started in Lancewood, only to say that fire officials sent to put that fire out were diverted to another fire.
"The probable cause comes down to that pine cone," said Manuel.
But once the fire started, there was no holding it back.
The topography and vegetation, a berg wind that had blown for three days before the fire, and high wind speeds, took over.
The Kruisfontein fire is believed to have changed direction and turned around and headed for Noetzie.
Municipal Manager Kam Chetty said that the estimated fire losses to the municipalities was around R496 million. Rebuilding is ongoing.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille declared the area a disaster zone.