Evidence ‘thin’ in Boland fires case

Evidence ‘thin’ in Boland fires case

13 April 2006

published by iafrica.com

Cape Town, South Africa — Holding to account the people who started the devastating Boland fires between December and February is proving difficult, with CapeNature conservation authorities themselves a target of possible civil litigation claims.

Four fires, which raged from Christmas Day to late January, damaged 60 000 hectares of vegetation including ecologically-sensitive fynbos, and cost R6-million to fight — mostly for the hiring of water-bombing helicopters.

A private firm of fire investigators had been called in to help determine the cause of some of the fires in Groendal, Franschhoek; Antoniesvlei near Bainskloof; Tweedetol picnic site; and at the site of the Berg River Dam construction, said CapeNature’s acting chief executive Fanie Bekker.

‘Fires started with kids playing around’

“It’s really crazy, but there are still some of these youth groups who teach that when you use the toilet in the veld, you must burn the toilet paper, and that’s what apparently happened.

“What’s very concerning is that two of these big fires started with kids playing around, doing things they weren’t supposed to,” Bekker said of the Groendal and Tweedetol fires.

Investigators could not pinpoint the cause of the Antoniesvlei fire, but CapeNature had requested further investigation amid rumours and suspicions that it was started by woodcutters.

The Berg Dam fire, which occurred on land managed by the state-owned enterprise Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), was the only fire where a criminal charge had been laid.

This fire allegedly started when an individual burnt rubbish in a prohibited area on a so-called “red day” where the fire risk index was extreme.

TCTA spokesperson, Siobhan McCarthy, could not comment as the investigation had not yet been finalised and the director of public prosecutions still had to decide how to proceed.

Insufficient evidence

However, a Franschhoek police officer told Sapa a senior prosecutor at Paarl was declining to prosecute because there was insufficient evidence to suggest the individual had started the fire.

Braam du Preez, legal compliance manager at MTO Forestry Pty Ltd, said a clearer understanding was being sought of the exact ownership of the land and who could be held liable for the damage.

“This report is well advanced and we have set ourselves a target of April 30 to finalise.”

He said about 70 hectares of commercial pine plantation burnt.

If a criminal charge in terms of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act was not pursued, there was an increased likelihood of affected parties seeking recompense in civil claims or settling out of court.

Bekker confirmed that three private landowners had given notice, but no formal claims, that they would seek compensation from CapeNature.

“The big thing revolves around negligence, which has to be proven before submitting a claim against somebody else.”

‘You’ve got to prove negligence’

He explained that if a fire started on property one and spread to properties two and three, property three could technically claim against two even though the fire started on one.

“In terms of the law, a claim can be lodged because the person on property two should have had necessary contingency plans, necessary staff and equipment in place, possibly firebreaks to prevent the spread of the fire.

“It’s very technical and again you’ve got to prove negligence, who started (the fire) and when.”

Bekker said agreements between landowners sometimes negated the threat of claims, and that this was further complicated by whether or not they belonged to fire protection associations.

If someone did not belong to one of these bodies, fire negligence was assumed and the onus was on the defendant to prove otherwise.

Claims against the children who started two of the Boland fires were not an option.

‘Very little can be done’

“There’s very little that we can do on that side. Kids from the relevant communities are normally fairly poor, their parents even poorer, and to try and claim against them is crazy.”

Bekker said the exact damage to the fynbos, fuelled by copses of alien vegetation, still needed to be gauged, with scientific monitoring of the fire impact to commence in a year’s time when the plants have had time to regenerate.

He was at a loss to explain the increase in fires sparked by human negligence, saying better innovation and creativity was needed to educate society.

“It’s like theft, rape, burglary, like HIV/Aids. How much energy and effort is going into education, over how many years and what impact are we collectively making in terms of improving the situation?

“With fire you can teach people forever about the dangers of fire and still see people in their grand cars throwing cigarette butts out of windows and those are the people with degrees, so-called well-educated people,” saidBekker.


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