Cape Town - There was no evidence that the devastating fires in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay in June were set deliberately, Knysna Fire Chief Clinton Manuel said on Monday.
"I cannot say that the fire was set deliberately," said Manuel, as the report into the fire, which killed seven people and destroyed at least 1 000 houses, was released.
Scientific analysis showed that the fire probably started in a clearing on private land in a mountainous area called Elandskraal, and that the fuel was probably pine cones. There are no pine trees in the area, but there was a footpath and an access road, which indicated human activity at the clearing.
"The probable cause comes down to that pine cone," said Manuel.
The investigators had also considered the possibility that a lightning strike in April had caused a smouldering fire, but the pine cone theory was more likely, he said.
A second fire was believed to have been started at Kruisfontein by somebody sleeping in the bushes, but high winds had changed direction so quickly, that that fire had moved over the mountain towards Plettenberg Bay, before changing direction again and heading back towards Noetzie.
Municipal Manager Kam Chetty said that the estimated losses to municipalities, as a result of the fires, were valued at around R496m.
Nobody had been arrested in connection with the fires, but the matter would be handed to the police who would investigate further.
Seven people were killed as the fires raged across the Eden Municipality - which includes Knysna and Bitou - between June 6-10.
Gale force winds exceeded 90km/h, making it difficult for firefighters to bring the blaze under control, and over 10 000 people had to be evacuated from their homes at night, some by boat.
Volunteer firefighter, 24-year-old Bradley Richards, was among those who died, and his colleague Ian Barnard was injured.
The Western Cape Premier Helen Zille declared Knysna and Plettenberg Bay a disaster zone, and massive relief and rebuilding efforts had been underway since then, with the municipality waiving some of its usual planning fees.
At the time, there were questions over whether the fires had been started deliberately, with a voice note being circulated with this aim, but authorities wanted to wait for the outcome of an investigation before pronouncing on this.