Controversy surrounds Knysna fires
There is a distinct difference between two reports concerning the cause of the devastating Knysna fires. The first report was given last week by Knysna fire chief, Clinton Manuel. The second one, by forensic scientist, Dr David Klatzow, was released this week. The muchpublicised release of the report by civil rights organisation AfriForum on the origin and cause of the June 7 fires has caused a rumpus on social media casting aspersions on the the credibility of Knysna fire chief Clinton Manuel’s official report.
The report was released on Tuesday, August 22 at AfriForum’s head office in Kloofsig, Centurion.
Compiled by forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow, the report comes after Manuel’s findings were released to the media last week, which fuelled several other opinions, also disputing Manuel’s theories.
Furthermore, two outspoken members of the public, Morné Jonker from Oudtshoorn and Ritchie Morris from the Elandskraal area, have publicly distanced themselves from Manuel’s findings altogether.
Jonker said he flew over the area that is disputed as the origin of the fire in May this year, and noted smoke caused by smouldering. Morris was frequently mentioned in Manuel’s report.
Among Klatzow’s findings, is that one of the fires that led to the widespread destruction was caused by a fire that had been smouldering for a few weeks after lightning had struck a part of the indigenous forest in the Elandskraal area. Both Jonker, Morris, and a Dr Wallace Vosloo are of the same opinion.
Although Klatzow agrees with Manuel on Elandskraal being the origin of the first fire, he differs completely on the specific site and cause of the fires. He believes a lightning strike and the subsequent underground smouldering that followed caused the fire – fuelled by the wind conditions on June 7, whereas Manuel believes pine cones brought into the area to use as firelighters were the cause of the fire, also egged on by the strong wind conditions.
Manuel’s report completely dispelled the notion that the cause of the fire was an “act of God”.
Six fires conidered
According to his report, Klatzow considered six different fires: the eastern fire in Knysna, which according to the report incidentally started in a forested area known as Dam-se-Bos; the western fire in Knysna, which originated in the Elandskraal area and was caused by lightning on April 12, 2017; the fires on the western side of the Knysna Lagoon, which caused damage to Brenton-on-Sea and the area next to Buffels Bay, a result of the Elandskraal fire; the fires at Pezula, which were a result of the fires at Dam-se-Bos and Elandskraal; the Plettenberg Bay fires, which were caused by a combination of factors; and the Mossel Bay fires, which Klatzow believes were started on purpose.
In Klatzow’s summary of the origins and cause of the fire, he states that an accidental fire that started at Dam-se-Bos spread southwards to the Pezula estate, and continued through wooded areas to Plettenberg Bay. “The ferocity of this set of fires was exacerbated by the prolonged drought and the development of gale-force winds which rendered the fire almost unstoppable,” he said.
Klatzow also stated that the western suburbs of Knysna were “engulfed in a second, unrelated fire which crossed the estuary on June 7”.
“This fire also burned along the Brenton Estate, Brenton-on-Sea and Brenton-on-Lake suburbs along the western shores of the estuary. This fire split into two fires, one affecting Greater Knysna, the other affecting the western
side of the estuary,” he said.
“Lightning caused western fires”
The ignition source of these western fires was a well-documented lightning strike, he said.
“Of concern is the timely and repeated warnings given to the authorities regarding this fire. It appears that these warnings did not result in any action being taken. Prompt fire prevention methods such as water bombing and ground crews may very well have averted this western fire catastrophe,” said Klatzow.
Farmers and residents of the Elandskraal community said they reported the lightning-hit smouldering area to the Sedgefield and Knysna fire departments on numerous occasions.
Call for commission of inquiry
According to a press release issued by AfriForum, the findings in the report have already been discussed with Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who in turn wrote a letter to the Western Cape government, asking for a commission of inquiry to look into the findings.
Deputy CEO of AfriForum Ernst Roets said the organisation plays a key role as a pressure group in civil society. “It is important that the truth prevails and that justice is done,” he said.
Due to AfriForum’s report being released on a Knysna-Plett Herald production day, neither the Knysna municipality nor fire chief Clinton Manuel had sufficient time to respond.
From left: AfriForum Trauma head Nantes Kelder (left), deputy CEO Ernst Roets, Dr David Klatzow and AfriForum spokesperson Reint Dykema during the media conference on August 22.