Knysna fire led to largest deployment of firefighting resources in SA history - authorities

(James de Villiers, News24)
(James de Villiers, News24)

Cape Town – The recent Knysna fires led to the largest deployment of firefighting resources and personnel in a single incident in South Africa's history, said Western Cape disaster management and fire rescue services chief director, Colin Deiner.

Deiner said 985 fighters, 78 fire vehicles, six Oryx military helicopters, four Working on Fire helicopters and two fixed wing bomber aircraft were deployed to battle the Knysna blaze, which lasted several days.

He called the deployment of resources the biggest success of provincial disaster services.

Deiner was addressing the provincial standing committee on local government on Tuesday on the provincial intervention in the Knysna and Plettenberg Bay disaster areas.

Between June 6 and June 10, fires destroyed more than 600 structures in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay when gale force winds exceeding 90 km/h made firefighting extremely difficult.   

Seven people lost their lives due to the blaze, authorities said at the time.

Some 28 fires were reported in the area on June 8.

Deiner said despite ongoing rumours of arson, investigations have not yet been concluded to make a conclusive verdict.

Preliminary assessments estimate roughly R136million worth of infrastructure damage, Deiner said.

Local government MEC Anton Bredell told committee chairperson Masizole Mnqasela that insurers estimate the damage to private property to be between R4bn and R5bn.

Deiner said provincial authorities have already released R75m to the disaster areas and additional funding will be requested from national treasury once assessments have been completed.

Communication

When News24 visited the area in June, residents thought it unusual that certain homes were still standing between destroyed neighbourhoods.

Deiner said this was due to the timber the houses used in construction.

"The way the timber gets compressed and the way that it is treated [makes it fire resistant] … That is something we have to look at when we do the build back process," Deiner said.

Committee member Tertuis Simmers, who also lost his house in the blaze, expressed concern over the use of communication during the fires when destroyed communication towers resulted in disrupted cellular communication for more than 20 hours.  

Simmers suggested provincial authorities create a singular communication channel to relay information instead of each municipality communicating individually.

Deiner agreed, saying that authorities' reliance on cellular communication will need to be assessed for future disaster scenarios.

He said provincial authorities have organised a "social media specialist" to assist disaster management services in planning for future disasters.

“Social media also makes it extremely difficult because people tend to follow a lot of things that they see on social media; that’s something we’ve learnt… we are going to have to manage it, we don’t know how we are going to manage it,” Deiner said.

Simmers thanked the provincial department for the work they did, saying the disaster “could’ve been much worse”.

"For me to see grown people of 60 and 70 years old still crying the Saturday (June 17) when I was there because they have never ever experienced something like that in their entire lives... That really showed me the historical impact of this disaster," he said.

In total the Western Cape saw 17 000 fires for the 2016/17 fire season, resulting in 142 fatalities, Deiner said.

Of the 17 000 fires, 2000 were reported in informal settlements affecting 5900 people.

ANC opposition MPLs were noticeably absent from the meeting. The Western Cape is governed by the DA.

ANC spokesperson Cobus Grobler told News24 that the MPLs excused themselves due to personal family reasons.

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