Wildfires in South Africa

Wildfires in South Africa

10 June 2017

First News of 7 June 2017

Knysna fires are ‘out of control’

NATIONAL NEWS – Gale force winds, fire all over Knysna and a situation that is like something out of a surreal movie, is for real. Knysna fire chief, Clinton Manuel, just confirmed the worst. The fires in Knysna are out of control and “there is a slim chance of stopping them.”

Knysna residents from every part of town are taking shelter from the storm near the water and at the Knysna Yacht Club. Manuel said that the fire is spreading “rapidly due to a fast wind and that people are being evacuated to safe areas within town.” Areas affected and evacuated, as confirmed by Manuel, are Brenton, Belvidere, Welbedaght, Eastford, Green Pastures and Knysna Heights. According to Manuel the fire is raging in two directions Knysna, one continuing from Knysna Heights and the other the fire spreading through Belvidere. From the viewpoint of the Knysna Yacht Club, some of these residents will notice fires on all sides of Knysna, which have now been confirmed as spreading. Manuel said with the resources available the chances of halting these runaway fires are “very slim.”

In the meantime, at close to 20:00 on Wednesday 7 June 2017, the merciless wave of flames is engulfing Belvidere, Brenton-on-Sea, Knysna Heights, and has even jumped over the White Bridge where emergency services were trying to keep it at bay earlier today. Unconfirmed reports have come in saying Knysna Montessori and Oakhill School have also succumbed to the fire. Knysna-Plett Herald editor Elaine King and journalist Stefan Goosen are safe at the Knysna Yacht Club and will update news of the fire as and when is possible.

Read a statement from Eden District Municipality below:

At 19:15 the Eden DMC received a call from the Acting MM of Knysna indicating that he needs to evacuate the entire town and National resources would be needed. This was communicated to the PDMC, unfortunately National resources cannot be deployed at this point in time, the activation of the SANDF could take a couple of days. Knysna has a population of about 77 000 people, they were advised to liaise with the George Municipality to obtain Go George busses to assist with evacuation of the town as soon as access to the Town was possible form the West. For the interim people is being moved by means of taxi’s and any possible transport to the Loerie Park area in the town.

The areas currently being evacuated include the following:

  • Brenton
  • Belvedere
  • Welbedacht
  • Nania
  • Eastford
  • Green Pastures
  • Knysna Heights

Update 09 June 2017

Nearly 800 homes were flooded across Cape Town and the Cavendish Square shopping centre in Claremont was evacuated as a major storm wreaked havoc in the Western Cape on 7 June 2017. The Cavendish Square shopping centre was closed as a precautionary measure, the centre said on its Facebook page. Roof sheeting is believed to have blown off due to strong winds. Buildings outside Somerset Mall, a shopping centre in Somerset West, were also evacuated as parts of the roof collapsed. Security officials said no injuries were reported. The City of Cape Town said 97 permanent dwellings and 700 emergency houses, which were erected after recent fires, were flooded. The emergency dwellings include 365 homes in Imizamo Yethu, 74 homes in Disa Park and 264 homes in Madiba Square. The permanent houses affected are in Macassar Village, City Of Cape Town disaster management spokesperson Charlotte Powell said.

Emergency shelters and humanitarian aid was organised. In Lavender Hill, Mercia Blom told News24 that her house was flooded just after 23h00 on 6 June 2017. “Past 11 the roof already started blowing and you can’t actually sleep [then the water started dripping through the roof],” she said. “My daughter had to sleep in the kitchen because we couldn’t sleep in the rooms.” Blom, who stays in a city-owned rental unit, said she informed the city about leaks in the building in 2016 and after that.

The South African Weather Service warned wind speeds between 60k/h to 80km/h were expected on Wednesday afternoon, 7 June 2017, with gusts of up to 120km/h. Rainfall between 15mm – 30mm had been measured by 8h00 on 7 June 2017, with Grabouw receiving the highest amount of 63mm.

Authorities will begin mop-up operations on 8 June 2017 following the severe storm across the peninsula.
Five people died as a result of the storm, while more than 2 000 people have been displaced.

Heavy rain and gale force wind had Capetonians running for cover, damaging homes and power lines, leaving thousands in the dark. Fishing vessels were confined to the harbour as the storm brought rough seas and heavy swells of up to 12m.

Authorities say they will continue to monitor the coast and informal settlements.

Western Cape local government spokesperson James-Brent Styan says, ”Across the City of Cape Town we have since nearly 90 trees blown down, about 72 roofs blow off and several shopping centres sustained some damage, including Cavendish Square, Sommerset Mall and the Cape Town Convention Centre.”
Schools and universities were closed on Wednesday as a precautionary measure.

Residents in informal settlements have told media they’re worried that the worst is yet to come. Walking through rows of shacks in the Taiwan Informal Settlement, a heavy smell of paraffin hangs in the air, as residents light stoves and candles to beat the biting cold. This raises the risk of shack fires. A councillor in the area, Nomfundi Moshani, says residents have no choice because many families still live without electricity. ”These people have been here for more than 15 years. This is what is happening all the time when it’s winter. As I speak I am afraid because some of them are old. There are those who are in wheelchairs.”

Some public halls have been made available to affected residents, while the adverse weather conditions persist. Officials say children, the elderly and the disabled will be prioritised. Many of the residents affected found refuge in community halls and shelters for the homeless were at capacity.

The storm is the worst in 30 years, and has brought with it torrential rain and gale force winds gusting at up to 100km per hour. The weather has been keeping city disaster management officials on their toes. The City’s JP Smith says they expect the weather conditions to intensify. “We are dealing with winds now of 65km/hour and greater, and will in some places like Cape Point Sir Lowry’s Pass reach up to 80km and 90km per hour.” Residents have been urged to avoid leaving their homes unnecessarily.

The weather has made it impossible for the president to fly out of Cape Town.

Rains, winds, fires and now snow…

The South African Weather Service says the storm is not done with us yet. Meteorologist, Michael Barnes, says there is also the chance of snowfall. ”We have had a few reports of snow towards the Sutherland area we can expect the showers to be snow showers in the western mountains into this evening and in the early hours of tomorrow morning.”

The storm system’s effects on the City of Cape Town have been extreme. Hundreds of houses have been flooded and scores of residents are taking shelter in temporary accommodation. There have been reports of trees felled by strong winds, and localised flooding in low lying areas. But the broader storm system is having wider reaching effects – it’s driving berg wind conditions in the Eden Municipality that in turn are fanning dangerous wildfires. Three people have died in those fires, bringing the total body count as a result of this storm to eight.

On the Peninsula, four people were killed when lightning struck an electricity pole and toppled onto them in Kraaifontein. Another man was killed when his shack collapsed on him in Lavender Hill. In Cape Town emergency services personnel are paying particular attention to the coastal areas, warning people not to go to close to the ocean.
Source: News24, EWN

Knysna fire contained, fire fighter died (09 June 2017)

A volunteer fire fighter in Plettenberg Bay, identified as Bradley Richards, died early on the morning of 9 June 2017 in hospital. He suffered 70 percent burn wounds in the line of duty. Richards was critically injured when a fire turned on him and his fellow fire fighters in the middle of the Harkerville forest on Wednesday morning, 7 June 2017. The 24-year-old Richards was a volunteer for the Plett South Fire Management Unit and was busy fighting the devastating fire that ripped through Plett on Wednesday and Thursday when he was injured. He died in the George Mediclinic.

Bitou mayoral spokesman Dumisani Mweba, who was with Richards and his colleagues during the fire fighting efforts that claimed his life, said he was distraught by the news. “Bradley was a hero who fought for his community right until the end. His passion was something to behold,” Mweba said. He added that while in the field Richards motivated his fellow firefighters and faced the dangers with bravery. “The fire that claimed his life was traveling at 70km per hour, that is something you can’t explain in words.”

Mweba, who became emotional when talking about Richards after learning about his death, said he and mayor Peter Lobese sent condolences to his family and friends. The fire death toll has now risen to five.

Fresh legs have been deployed and better conditions persist but 3 000 to 4 000 people remain displaced. Some evacuated areas have been declared safe, but a second fire fighter, Ian Barnard, has been injured and is in ICU with 50 percent burn wounds, in addition to the fire fighter who passed away. The water supply in Knysna is running low. Knysna Municipality released a statement requesting patience and thanking residents for their conservation efforts. ”Most of the water systems are severely stressed as a result of the fire fighting efforts. We are further losing water through the connections and infrastructure that were destroyed during these fires. We urgently request people to conserve water and thank them for their sterling efforts thus far.”

With about 80 percent of the fireline of the wildfires that have spread throughout the Garden Route contained and some areas declared safe, officials and residents are focusing on mop-up operations and helping affected people.

Donations and relief are pouring in from across the country, with several large corporates committing to donate time, money and services to assist in the relief effort. Knysna Municipality posted on their Facebook page, ”We would like to thank each and every person who has donated goods thus far. Due to your immense generosity we have reached our capacity for today. As matters progress we will make further requests for donations as we are assessing our requirements.”

Colin Deiner, director of the Western Cape Provincial Disaster Management Centre, released the following statement: ”Please be advised of the following: A number of individuals have taken it upon themselves to respond to the fires in the Eden District of their own accord without a request by any of the command centres dealing with the incident. While we appreciate the good intentions of these individuals, the Provincial Disaster Management Centre is extremely concerned that due to the fact that they do not represent a formal government agency they do not enjoy any insurance cover. Should these persons get injured or killed it could have serious repercussions for us as the command element. These individuals are also not familiar with the Western Cape command system which is crucial in the safe performance of our operations. While we are not opposed to these persons being utilised for non-operational purposes the province will not support their deployment for active fire fighting activities and will not take responsibility for any claims resulting from any death or injury that may occur. Head: Provincial Disaster Management Centre”

Source: Western Cape Provincial Disaster Management Centre, Knysna Municipality, Knysna Plett Herald and News24

NSRI assists with evacuation of Knysna residents

During the evacuation of Knysna on 7 June 2017, NSRI Knysna assisted with the evacuation of the Belvidere residents via the estuary to St James. The conditions were very challenging and our volunteers did an excellent job. Our thoughts go out to each and every Knysna resident that lost a loved one or a house in these difficult times. Some of our crew had to evacuate their own homes immediately after the rescue, and also lost every thing last night.
Source: NSRI

Report of GFMC Correspondent Neels De Ronde (Sedgefield, West of Knysna) (08 June 2017)

I only observed one of the fires from its start, just 2km N of my house in Sedgefield, from where it spread all the way to Knysna, forcing the Belvedere village inhabitant to escape to the edge of the lagoon from where they were evacuated to Thesens Island by “Sea and Rescue” as well as private speed boats. No access yet possible to Belvedere, so cannot tell the outcome of this fire there. Another “finger” of this fire front burned into a more S direction to the mouth of the Knysna River Lagoon, where (i) it forced resident from Brenton-on-Sea onto the beach to escape the fire, (ii) burned through a Nature Reserve and it (iii) spotted across the “Heads” from W to E, from where it spread further.

However, this was only one of the 25+ fires that started around Knysna and eventually surrounded the village so that thousands of people had to flee to the only escape route left (all roads closed) which was Thesens Island where a marina housed a few hundred permanent residents. Here most stayed for the night sleeping in their cars.

Estimated number of resident homesteads burned over so far: 150. Five persons lost their lives so far.

Numerous other wildfires were experienced from Hermanus area (Overberg) via Knysna and Plettenberg Bay as far as W of Port Elizabeth, as far N as Uniondale. No official count of numbers of fire available yet. Evacuations also occurred elsewhere than at Knysna.

Left: View of the fire at the West side of Knysna Lagoon, just before evacuations from there. Note height of cumulus cloud/smoke in old Fynbos shrubland. Right: Knysna Heights fire surrounds Knysna in the evening of 7 June 2017, taken from the Thesens Island house of Kevin Reid (Photo: Courtesy K. Reid)

Left: Similar view as above right, phototaken by Harja Raubenheimer from different angle, taken from her Thesens Island house. Middle and right: Photo by Graham Berry showing his house in Knysan completely destroyed. Note very old Fynbos vegetation burned out!

View from space of the wildfire locations and smoke travelling to the South as depicted by the MODIS Terra instrument. Source: NASA

Update report of GFMC Correspondent Neels De Ronde (Sedgefield, West of Knysna) (12 June 2017)

All the fires around Knysna/Plettenberg Bay are now extinguished and under control. Weather conditions for the next few days are now favourable for safe and systematic attention while mopping up.

Human mortality: Nine people lost their lives so far. Dwellings/homesteads/other buildings damaged or destroyed: Still rough estimates, but could run into 400 to 500 now (mostly completely destroyed). Aid is pouring in, while insurance companies are working hard to identify damage to properties of their clients and get claims out.

I can safely say that the standard of training and experience (also of fire managers) has greatly improved and something South Africans are very proud of. I can safely say that these teams can be compared with the best in the world!

Wildfire investigations: Until the post-mortems are all attended to, this has not been given any serious thought, but I am sure this next phase will be initiated. I hope that our wildfire reconstruction phase will also be set to work here (see: Wildfire Investigation – a textbook and guidelines published by De Ronde and Goldammer, 2015). Other specialists in this field will also join no doubt.

Assessing status of urban interface and general fire prevention measures in the region, I am sure this process will soon start and I am ready to present my ideas if called to assist. Here there is tremendous room for improvement and this reality should soon sink-in.

While our fire brigade bosses from all organisations involved will start with serious post-mortem processes, final reports will also become available and then more detail will also be supplied.

Knysna fires : five factors that produced the Perfect Inferno

30 June Newsletter. Published by Fire and Rescue International: http://www.fireandrescue.co/news-30-jun-knysna.html

June 2017 will be remembered by South Africans for decades to come. A historical moment when Mother Nature showed her true power and the only option was to get out of her path and watch in awe. For a week preceding the fire, extreme weather warnings had been issued with predictions of flooding in drought stricken Cape Town and surrounds and rain and strong winds in the Garden Route. Waking up on the 7 June 2017, little did anyone know that within 72 hours 10 000 hectares and in excess of 500 structures in the Garden Route would be burnt, some houses simply reduced to a heap of rubble and vast swathes of pine plantations burnt. While fires aren’t uncommon in the Garden Route, this fire had all the conditions to make the ‘Perfect Fire’, something that thankfully occurs only every 100 years. With hindsight being a perfect science, understanding the fire has produced insight into the elements that created this inferno.

There were five core conditions that made this fire so unique, namely :
The regional drought conditions
The fuel load in the environment and suburbs,
Topography of the area,
Hot ambient air conditions,
The speed of the wind.

Each of these conditions would contribute to a fire, indeed the combination of two or three conditions would generate a formidable fire, but the combination of all five factors produced a historical fire.

Looking at each factor and how it contributed to the perfect conditions will assist in understanding the mechanisms and how to plan to mitigate escalated damage in the future.

Drought Conditions:
The Garden Route, along with the rest of the Western Cape has been in the grips of a severe drought for 12 months. While Cape Town exhibits an established winter rainfall, the Garden Route between Mossel Bay and Storms River don’t. Contrary to popular belief, the Garden Route doesn’t have a rainfall season.

The impact of the current drought on vegetation and the resultant increase of fuel for a fire, has been substantial. One drought survival mechanism of plants is to reduce the surface area of trans- evaporation, or simply put, to defoliate and drop leaves. The defoliation can represent up to 40 percent of the trees leaf mass.

With the accumulation of extra leaf mass, the usual systems of decomposition by both chemical (fungal) and mechanical (earthworms, crickets, Pill Millipedes etc) means is retarded and thicker layers build up. This build up in areas can result in the formation of natural compost heaps. Normal composting is an exothermic process reaching internal temperatures between 45 and 77 degrees C. Under certain conditions a compost heap can spontaneously combust.

Alone, the additional leaf litter and potential compost heaps has a potential for starting a small fire, or series of fires.

Accumulation of Fuel:
It is important to understand the different vegetation types in the Garden Route to appreciate the contribution to the build-up of flammable material for fires. Everyone speaks of the Knysna Forest and the Fynbos in the Garden Route. However, we also have pine plantations, alien stands, coastal thicket and Milkwood Forest. In addition we have agricultural practices which comprise crop production, orchards and pastures for dairy and livestock production.

The importance to distinguish each of these vegetation types is that each has a different contribution to the progression of a fire, some retarding fire and others fuelling fire.

The Afro-montane forest, as a natural stand is fire retardant with the border species preventing the spread of fire to the interior of the forest. This has evolved as a means of protection against the fire climax vegetation of Fynbos.

Milkwood forest is also fire retardant which can be clearly evidenced on the eastern end of Lake Pleasant where the fire was stopped dead in a straight line by this vegetation type.

Coastal Thicket is in some part fire retardant, but the leaf litter, when dry, and dead branches burn and smoulder. While not completely stopping a fire, is can slow the progress of the fire down. The biggest danger of this vegetation type is the potential of flare up after the main fire has stopped.

Then there is Fynbos. Every South African knows the fires of Fynbos. Fast, furious, extensive and most times unstoppable. Fynbos, is a fire climax vegetation and needs fire. There is no exact frequency period of a burn, but it does need to burn. Not burning it has two results. Firstly, the build-up of flammable material and secondly the intrusion of either coastal thicket or forest species.

The Goukamma Nature Reserve east of Sedgefield hasn’t had a burn in 30 years except for a small portion near the Goukamma River which was burnt in 2006. It was primed with fuel for a fire and was completely burnt during this recent fire.

Pine and Eucalypt plantations are also prone to burning. Depending on the age and maintenance of the plantations the leaf litter layer can build up and add to the fuel base for a fire. Representing the largest surface area burnt in this fire, the contribution as fuel of the mosaic of plantations has to be addressed.

Finally, the gradual intrusion of alien vegetation, which burns readily, in the form of extensive stands of Black Wattle has also contributed vastly to the provision of fuel to the recent fire.

The collection of fuel biomass from pine plantations, alien stand and a fynbos without partitioning corridors of fire retarding forest was a major contributing factor in the rapid spread of the fires.

Regional Topography :
Ask any old farmer or fire fighter where to run to when a fire gets out of hand and they will all direct you to the kloofs. This isn’t random advice, but the wisdom of experience. Fire likes to race up slopes and along ridge lines, bypassing gorges.

The Elandskraal fire did exactly that, twice splitting along ridge lines and then joining up again. A good indication of the traditional fire paths, because the vegetation has been controlled by fire for millennia, is to check the vegetation that prevails. Again, if Afro-montane Forest occurs naturally in an area, then the chances are that fire hasn’t traveled that way in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future.

Hot ambient Air Conditions : Berg Wind
Dendrochronological studies from trees in the Afro-montane forest lack any clear seasonal growth patterns in their growth rings which indicates a lack of a clear and defined rainfall in the region over a time frame that extends back at least 650 years.

The relevance of this distinction in rainfall patterns is important when weather predictions indicate heavy rain and flooding in Cape Town. When a winter storm is predicted for Cape Town, the anticyclonic weather mechanisms of the southern hemisphere will result in the pressure system veering north east from Cape Town and passing slightly north of the Garden Route.

This deflection north of the Garden Route creates a north westerly wind into the region which results in hot dry air known as a Berg Wind. Depending on the state and strength of El Nino and La Nina conditions, the degree of deflection of the pressure systems varies and can create a period of winter Berg Winds in the Garden Route. A previously notable period of prevailing Berg Winds in the Garden Route was from May 1995 for six weeks.

The mechanics of a Berg Wind are simple. As air descends from altitude, in this case over the Outeniqua Mountain Range, it heats up to approximately 32 degrees C, but can be as high as 38 degrees C. In addition to being hot, the air is extremely dry.

These hot dry conditions played a major role as a predisposition for the fires of 7th June. In the preceding week there were two days of Berg Winds which dried and wilted vegetation in the area. This, added to the extra layer of defoliated material as a result of the drought, prepared ample fuel that required a simple spark to ignite it.

Wind Speed:
Something beyond all human control is the speed of the wind. When a barometric chart indicates a large pressure differential, then expect strong wind. On the 6th June, the barometer started dropping from 1024mb at 00h00 to approximately 997mb by 15h00.

Accounts of how fast the wind was traveling on the 7th June vary, but it was recorded at between 90km/h and 100km/h with gusts exceeding 110km/h, strong enough to divert one aircraft from landing at George Airport and to close the airport till the late afternoon.

Like a bellows, winds of this speed can fan a fire and superheat it in excess of 2000 degrees C which is exactly what occurred on 7 June 2017.

Thermal Wave:
Add all the above conditions in with the strong wind blowing from the north west and you have the makings of the perfect fire and the creation of a phenomena known as a Thermal Wave. Referenced in literature and rarely seen, a thermal wave is a sine wave flow of super-heated air associated with a fire.

Heat from the fire rises, while the wind blows it horizontally before it touches down and ignites a new fire and then again bounces off downwind. The wave length of this thermal wave can vary between 300m and 1000m allowing it to jump over valleys and rivers and resulting in the seemingly random effect of single houses exploding into flames while those around them are left unscathed.

The mechanics of the thermal wave are interesting. The superheated air rises from the flames and moves laterally driven by the wind. As the air descends into the trough of the wave (of the sine wave form) the high temperature heats everything before it, be it trees or a structure, which then erupts into flame spontaneously before any flame reaches the area. When this wave descends on a structure like a house, it forces the roof down with immense pressure while the extreme heat melts glass and disintegrates bricks. The result is a collapsed pile of rubble.

Eye witness accounts of this leading edge of the thermal wave describe it as a rolling ‘tumbleweed’ flying through the air at between 100km/h and 110km/h. One account even related how the fire overtook their car at 110km/h. The area beneath the peak of the thermal wave has been described by Knysna Fire Chief, Clinton Manual as being beneath the ‘dome’, a smokeless zone of earie silence and no wind.

In the Garden Route, during a few days starting on 7 June, we lived through a historical event, another which has only ever been recorded in1869. Nothing could have prepared us for this fire and nothing could have combatted it. It was the perfect fire, a combination of factors which fuelled the inferno.

Fortunately we have learnt from this event and can formulate plans to never again allow Mother Nature to play a Royal Flush of all five contributing factors to produce a thermal wave through the Garden Route. We can’t prevent droughts or stop the Berg Wind or retard the wind speed, but we can manage the fuel load of the region and establish corridors of fire retardant vegetation and plan a mosaic of safe zones.

Source: Garden Route Trail

Taxi burns out during wildfire in vryheid

25 August Newsletter. Published by Fire and Rescue International: http://www.fireandrescue.co/news-25-aug-vryheidfire.html

A fire raged on farms near Vryheid and headed towards the town on 22 August 2017, fanned by strong August winds. The fire was reported to have started late in the afternoon in the Scheepersnek area, south west of Vryheid and spread rapidly, going across the P16 to Vryheid East. According to Belinda Catchpole, media liaison officer for Kwazulu Private Ambulance, a taxi caught alight as the flames spread to the R34. One person was declared dead at the scene while two others were in a critical condition. A total of 15 people were injured, one of them a three month old baby who suffered smoke inhalation. The patients were stabilised and transported to hospital by various services. Cattle were lost in the fire and farm houses were reported to have burnt down. Catchpole reported that 600 children were evacuated from the Landbou Agricultural School as the fire headed in that direction and thick smoke blanketed the area. The fire was extinguished in the early hours of 23 August 2017, approximately nine hours after it broke out.

Sources: Belinda Catchpole, media liaison officer, Kwazulu Private Ambulance
East Coast Radio

Recent news from the Knysna fires


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