Res­i­dents say fire warn­ings ‘ig­nored’

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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 3.40pm. 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 5.17am 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.

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 well­wish­ers 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.

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