Knysna disaster: 'Municipality was warned in advance'

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Knysna disaster: 'Municipality was warned in advance'

If new findings are accepted, municipality could face a very big liabilities bill indeed

Cape Town bureau chief

The seeds of one of the 2017 Knysna fires smouldered underground for 77 days before unleashing one of South Africa’s biggest disasters, says the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
The organisation says a lightning strike on March 22 probably started an underground fire which was fanned into an inferno by a strong berg wind on June 7.The finding is set to reignite controversy over the Elandskraal fire because it contradicts a Knysna Municipality report in September entitled Act of God Ruled Out.It supports the finding of forensic expert David Klatzow, who was asked to investigate the fire by a group of Elandskraal landowners.
They said the municipality was warned that the fire had been smouldering since April and that not only did officials fail to extinguish it, they repeatedly ignored landowners’ requests for help.
“The Knysna fire department was warned of this smouldering and smoking area,” said Klatzow’s report. “Unfortunately, after numerous warnings by owners in the area, the Knysna fire department did not take any action other than observing. Drone footage confirms that the area was still smouldering and smoking on Saturday 27 May. Further, no signs of human activity in the area were found.”The CSIR says strong berg wind conditions coupled with very dry vegetation most probably resulted in the flare-up of a lightning-induced smouldering fire on the morning of June 7.
“The cause, location and timing of the ignition of the Elandskraal fire was a contentious issue from the outset as limited data were available at the time,” said research group leader Philip Frost.
However, the triggering of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters meant that for two weeks after the fire satellite images flooded in from space agencies in the US and Europe, as well as commercial operators. Eventually the CSIR had 500GB of data to pore over.
“This presented a gold mine of data to the CSIR researchers who could piece together a probable sequence of events. The analyses provide valuable insight into the conditions that led to this disastrous fire and thus may assist in mitigating fire risks and inform responses in future,” said Frost.The main findings are:
• Extensive corroborating scientific evidence points to the existence and spread of a smouldering fire  — probably underground — that was most likely caused by a lightning strike on March 22 in the Elandskraal area;
• The first sign of a 122-square-metre patch of brown, dying vegetation was detected by the Sentinel 2 satellite on March 29. Satellite imagery indicates that the area of smouldering vegetation had grown to 3,033 square metres by May 18. The patch of dying vegetation was now also visible in Google Earth satellite images; 
• Lightning strike data from the South African Weather Service suggests that a lightning strike on March 22 was the most likely cause of the smouldering patch of vegetation, but this cannot be established for certain;
• On the morning of June 7, north-westerly winds had reached  50km/h by 3.30am and 55km/h at 5.23am. This could have provided sufficient oxygen for a smouldering, underground fire to flare up; and
• Based on active fire detection by satellites, it is estimated that the smouldering patch of vegetation flared up between 5am and 5.30am.A final verdict on the cause of the fire will have far-reaching implications. The municipality reportedly has limited public liability cover and could face crippling counterclaims from insurers. Officials may also be criminally liable in light of several fatalities during the almost week-long inferno.
CSIR researchers compiled their report with the assistance of the Advanced Fire Information System, which the organisation has developed over 13 years to assist in the prediction, detection and assessment of wildfires globally.
The report says satellite imagery should be used continuously to assess the risk of fires on the border between fynbos and urban areas.
Following reviews by local and international experts, the document was submitted to  the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association, the Western Cape Disaster Management Centre, Knysna municipality and the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters.

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