On 14 August,  Knysna Municipal Fire Chief, Clinton Manuel, presented to various members of the media the cause of the devastating fires that spread through the area from 7 June. 

At the media briefing, also presided upon by Municipal Manager Cam Chetty and Knysna Executive Mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies,  Manuel offered detailed scientific evidence which pointed to the origin of the fire being on a clearing site in Elandskraal.

“Specific patterns of the burn scars on the terrain show a definite V pattern which indicates, with a high degree of certainty, the site where the fire started. Just below this scar, we have found evidence of man-made fire,” he said.

Manuel explained that part of that evidence was a small stack of firewood, as well as pine cones, which would have had to have been brought in by someone as there are no pine trees in that vicinity.

“I can confirm that the cause of the fire being an Act of God is dispelled,” Manuel stated, referring to a number of theories being circulated which suggest that a lightning strike in the same proximity was the original cause of the fire.  Using aerial photographs of the topography and compiled data of the timing, speed, and direction of the wind on 7 June (when the fire started spreading), Manuel tracked the fire’s progress from the hills and valleys of Elandskraal to surrounding areas. His presentation offered what he believes to be conclusive proof that the fire could not have begun at the point of the lightning strike. Included were pictures taken weeks after the fire, showing that the point where the strike occurred is still surrounded by thick green vegetation.

Asked whether arson was suspected, Manuel said they could not come to this conclusion. The fact that a man made fire had resulted in such huge devastation did not necessarily mean that it had been intended for anything else than a means to keep warm or cook.  “We cannot say that this fire was started as a criminal act of arson, in other words deliberately. This investigation is now being handed over to the South African Police Services,” he stated.

At the briefing, the Mayor thanked South Africa for their continued support of Greater Knysna during and after the fires, and for keeping its residents in their thoughts and prayers.

“Following the fires we needed to decide whether we recreate what was there before or if we do things completely differently. We have chosen to respond to the disaster by finding innovative ways of becoming a disaster-wise community,” she said, “One of the biggest culprits for the intensity of the fire was invasive plant material. The Knysna Municipality plans to use that exact material to build labour intensive, cost effective, fire resistant housing.”

The Mayor added that the fire has left the area with bare slopes that are extremely susceptible to erosion. “We’ve acquired erosion control materials that are made from the fibres of invasive plants and already these geo-textiles are being installed by municipal staff in the erosion hot spots,” she explained.

Also addressing the media at the briefing, Knysna Municipal Manager Cam Chetty pointed out that Clinton Manuel has many years of experience in forensic fire investigation, including the Cape Town Fires in Camps Bay, Strandfontein, Lakeside and the Southern Peninsula fires, and that in every case his findings and conclusions had been verified,  surviving intense interrogation.  He said that there had not been a ‘delay’ in concluding the Knysna fire investigation and releasing its results, as some had suggested, but that it had taken the time that such a comprehensive investigation would anywhere else in the world.

“This report presented today included evidence and opinions of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and several other scientists, and I must say that I am extremely impressed with their methodology,” he added.

According to Chetty the Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille’s office has set up the Garden Route Rebuild Initiative to support the rebuilding of the region. Preliminary estimates, to address the infrastructure of disaster damage totals R496.3 million for the entire region.

Cost estimates for Knysna alone are:

Health infrastructure – R 1, 256 million

Agriculture – R40 million

Human Settlements – R44,920 million

Local Government – R91 573 175

Environmental affairs – R134.89 million

“Much of this funding must still be raised and applications are being made to various government departments for assistance,” the Municipal manager explained.

The Fire Chief’s scientific and technical presentation is available on the Knysna Municipal Website.