SA's on fire and there's no one to put it out
As the death toll mounts from fires amid a firefighting skills shortage in SA, the economy counts the huge cost
Sophisticated arsonists and a dire lack of firefighting skills are exacting an increasingly deadly toll on SA – and costing the economy billions.
The latest edition of Fire Protection, an industry magazine, reveals the country’s financial losses – calculated on data provided from municipalities and insurance companies – for 2016, amounted to more than R3bn.
In 2007, the total financial loss from fires was R1.6bn.
The report, SA Fire Loss Statistics 2016, shows that while the number of fires has decreased year on year since 2013, the financial losses and deaths are mounting.
In 2016, 41,873 fires claimed 530 lives, up from 436 in 2015. The majority of these deaths, says the report, occurred in squatter camps and in motor accidents. The report states that these deaths do not include those who died in hospital from fire-related injuries, or in fires in rural areas where there are no fire brigades.Arson was responsible for 1,489 fires, with open flames accounting for 12,301 of them.
The municipalities that had the greatest number of fires were Cape Town (6,681), eThekwini (6,136), Nelson Mandela Bay (4,586), Tshwane (4,585) and Johannesburg (2,322).
The reason for rising financial losses and deaths, say fire investigation experts and former firefighters, is that the country is losing its firefighting capabilities.
One of SA’s leading independent fire investigation experts, Danny Joubert, said that increasingly the investigations he conducted were into fires started by arsonists.
“Three years ago, 15% of my investigations were into suspected arson. That has now risen to 40%.”While in the past arson attacks would have been more spur-of-the-moment and amateurish, the culprits were becoming far more sophisticated and premeditated in their attacks, said Joubert.
“An example of this is a recent case I investigated involving an industry fire where the loss claimed was R9m. The investigations revealed the fire was meticulously planned over a period of six months.”Compounding the problem of fighting and investigating fires in the country was a lack of capacity at fire brigades.
“In a rand-to-rand comparison, taking out the rising cost of inflation, fires which 20 years ago would have resulted in R100,000 worth of losses, now result in losses of R5m.“Fires that 10 years ago would not have seen the complete burnouts of properties, now result in the total destruction of buildings. This is because fire brigades no longer have the capacity to deal with the number of fires which are occurring.”
Wynand Engelbrecht, the former Midrand fire station commander who now runs Fire Ops SA, said there were definite increases in total burnouts of structures, with people increasingly in danger because of the country’s loss of firefighting capabilities.
“The entire country, especially Gauteng, is facing a dire situation. You have a lack of water tankers, staff and equipment.
“Last week, in Sunninghill, 25 thatch-roofed homes and 100 shacks burnt out completely. In Randburg last week, 12 flats were destroyed. Then there was the Rand Water transformer – which was responsible for running water pumps for 22 Johannesburg suburbs – which was destroyed in a fire.”
Incidents like these put a huge strain on the system, said Engelbrecht.
“This is just in Gauteng. These don’t include fires in other metros and cities.”
The SA Fire Loss Statistics 2016 report says the predominant cause of fires in SA is open flame, with formal residential fires the financial loss leaders, accounting for more than R1.6bn.It shows 726 industrial fires in 2016 accounted for losses of R228m, mostly in the textile sector (R50m).
“This equates to R2.3m lost per textile fire.”
The report adds: “The tragic loss of life through fires remains a concern and is not fully recorded. These deaths  are indicative of actual incidents attended by the fire brigades. They do not include fatalities that occurred after patients were admitted to hospital, nor fatal fires that occurred in rural areas where no formal fire service is provided.”
Of the fires fought, only 12,666 were structures on fire.
When it came to fires in formal dwellings, 132 were caused by cigarettes, 707 through electrical faults, 700 because of open flames, 375 by cooking incidents, 273 from heating systems, and 219 from arson.
In informal dwelling fires, 1,027 were caused by open flames, 190 by cigarettes, 559 from electrical faults, 349 by cooking incidents, 197 from heating systems, and 291 by arson.