Residents say fire warnings ‘ignored’

Residents in Elandskraal near Knysna said they warned the local fire brigade that there were fires smouldering in the dense brush in the mountains above their farms more than a month ago, but nothing was done about it.

They say the fire, which was smouldering underground for weeks, was probably started by lightning before it was fanned by strong winds earlier this week.

The blazes subsequently spread and laid waste to large swathes of Knysna and surrounding areas.

Dr Wallace Vosloo, an Eskom engineer from Stellenbosch, this week showed City Press’ sister paper Rapport a video that he filmed of the fire on May 27.

The video shows a plume of smoke and a burnt area as large as a rugby field.

Vosloo has in the meantime used lightning records and satellite photographs to compile a report on the origin of the fire.

According to the report, a lightning strike hit the mountainous area on April 12 at about 15:40.

Vosloo believes that the fire was smouldering underground after the lightning’s intense heat set fire to tree roots.

His report also shows that he and his neighbours called the nearby Sedgefield fire department several times, but no one responded.

Vosloo said the automatic weather station on his farm showed that the wind suddenly picked up by 20km/h in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

By 05:17 that day, his farmhouse was in ruins and the weather station had stopped sending data.

He is convinced that the wind, together with low humidity and rising temperatures, contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

"Zero reply"

Vosloo’s neighbour, Anton du Plessis, said he phoned Sedgefield fire department more than a month ago to report the fire.

“They couldn’t get a fire truck in here because it was too big and there was also a fire in Mossel Bay at that stage. They also said the fire was small, that there were no flames and that it would go out by itself,” he said.

Du Plessis said he eventually also called the head of the Sedgefield fire department, who came and had a look and suggested that they burn large fire breaks – but nothing came of this.

“Look, I can’t judge anyone. Maybe this guy had his hands full. It’s about resources. But surely they could have sent in a helicopter ... but there was zero reply,” he said.

Rapport put the allegations to Clinton Manuel, the head of the fire department for Sedgefield and Knysna. He said the cause of the fire was still unknown, and that the “smouldering brush” Vosloo referred to in his report was sorted out by the Sedgefield and Eden district municipality’s fire department.

Meanwhile, Knysna mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies said the municipality had to bring in logistics experts to help distribute emergency supplies that were donated by well-wishers from around the country.

About 10 000 people were forced to evacuate their homes in and around Knysna.

“The rate that stuff has been coming in has been incredible,” she said.

“It is totally overwhelming. We still don’t know how long people will be out of their homes.”

She specifically asked for donations of mattresses, sleeping bags and 5-litre water bottles.