Knysna fires: Council throws cold water on arsenic fume fears
Authorities dismiss arsenic concerns around fire-ravaged sawmill as locals report respiratory problems
Air quality tests at a still-smouldering timber yard near Knysna show no risk of toxic arsenic fumes, the Garden Route District Municipality said on Tuesday after residents raised concerns.
The tests follow mounting concern about possible air contamination at the well-known Geelhoutvlei sawmill and timber yard – which is outside Karatara – which was completely destroyed during the recent devastating fires.
The widespread fire, which has yet to be completely extinguished, has left a persistent smoky haze across much of the Garden Route, adding to a fear of localised “flare-ups” similar to those that wreaked havoc around Knysna in 2017.
Several Knysna residents took to social media to voice concerns about possible air contamination from treated wood at the Geelhoutvlei site.
Copper chrome arsenate (CCA), which contains arsenic, has been a popular treatment for wood since the 1930s.
One Knysna resident told Times Select he and his family had left town owing to respiratory concerns. Commenting on the Garden Route Fire Watch Facebook page, Jacques Ainslie said: “It is a cause for concern. I've been transporting patients from the Karatara and Rheenendal area with respiratory complications due to the smoke hanging over the area at night and during the day when there’s wind. And it’s not even people that have chronic lung issues.”
But Garden Route District Municipality spokesperson Herman Pieters denied any cause for concern, pointing to air quality tests at the Geelhoutvlei site which showed no sign of harmful toxins.
“It was confirmed this morning that there is no risk of arsenic,” Pieters said. “There is a strong smell coming from pine wood that burns, but our air quality manager went out and tested it,” he said.
He said there was some material still smouldering in the ground and the municipality would intervene to clear the site, as per the requirements of the National Environmental Management Act.
Pieters said firefighting officials were not responding to every “hot spot” or flare-up, although there was round-the-clock monitoring. He said fire in areas posing no risk to property or human life were being allowed to burn. Much of the affected area had not been burnt for about 20 years, which partly accounted for the intensity and spread of the fire.
Pieters said: “If there is a hot spot in a mountainous area then sometimes it is good for the bush to burn – it is not financially viable to send out an Oryx (helicopter) to bomb a hot spot where we know there is no infrastructure or danger (to human life).”
Dave Metelerkamp, Geelhoutvlei Timbers owner, was too emotional to speak about it at length. He would only say: “The whole thing is terribly traumatic, with terribly widespread effects.”
Cobus Meiring, spokesperson for the Southern Cape Landowners Initiative, said smouldering hot spots were still widespread despite heavy rainfall in some places.
“There are still isolated fires everywhere,” he said. “After last year’s Knysna fires there were still places smouldering and this was a much larger fire.”
Marginally windier and drier conditions due to climate change could well be a contributing factor to increased incidence of wildfires, Meiring said.