KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa — Spontaneous combustion of chicken manure and electricity lines damaged in high winds are believed to have sparked last week’s catastrophic fires that cut swaths of destruction in KwaZulu-Natal, claiming as many as 14 lives and leaving about 1 000 people homeless.
Fuelled by winds reaching 80km/h, the fires in Winterton and northern KwaZulu-Natal were almost unstoppable, jumping the N3 near the UltraCity outside Estcourt, and a forestry firebreak in northern KwaZulu-Natal spanning 300m.
Provisional assessments indicate that up to 300 000ha of grazing lands have been destroyed, and according to the department of agriculture, as many as 100 000 head of cattle, sheep and goatskilled.
‘There is always a weak link at local government level’
Nearly 1 000 people also lost their homes and everything they owned.
Media reports on the number of deaths varied this week, with official figures ranging from nine, 11, and 13, to 14 on Friday, following the death of a woman who had suffered severe burns.
The first official statement from the department of agriculture last Saturday put the unconfirmed death toll as high as 17, as reports began slowly filtering in from rescue workers combing burnt-out areas.
Spokesperson, Mbulelo Baloyi, said the disparity in figures on deaths published through the week resulted from provincial authorities not being adequately apprised by district municipalities.
This, and the associated failure to provide names of victims, not only highlights the logistical fractures in government services in rural areas, but also the isolated conditions of life experienced by many people.
‘The winds were freakish’
During the fires, many victims battled to access emergency medical treatment.
When fires began dying down around Paulpietersburg near Vryheid last Saturday, the chairperson of the local farmers’ association, Arno Engelbrecht, called the Sunday Tribune for help in alerting top government authorities to the disaster, and urgent medical needs of labourers, women and children caught in the fires.
Although this highlighted the lack of the government’s firefighting capacity and emergency services in outlying rural areas, the response from available private firefighting agencies and the provincial disaster management centre has been praised.
“From the time word of the fires had broken out, midday on Friday, the response was good. All available resources were called in – the Department of Forestry guys and Fire Protection Association, the works,” said KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture Union president Robin Barnsley.
“What also strikes me is that whenever there is a disaster, a very slick machine gets going between the government and private sector, and response is quick and effective. There is always a weak link at local government level, but nevertheless they try hard,” said Barnsley.
Acting head of the provincial management centre, Liz Diedericks, said after news of fires broke out more than 200 Working on Fire personnel were deployed, assisted by a fixed-wing spotter plane, two fire-bombers and a helicopter.
But high winds, said Diedericks, made it practically impossible to fight the fires with conventional fire engines and tankers. It was only after winds dropped overnight on Friday and early Saturday morning that the fires could finally be contained.
Diedericks said if any lessons were to be learned, it was the need to increase the capacity of firefighting services in rural areas.
“We have given each district municipality a fire tanker, a disaster management vehicle and firefighting unit, but they made no impact at all. They can’t be used to fight major fires.”
Diedericks said the services of Rural Metro Emergency Services, a privately-owned firefighting agency servicing local municipalities in three outlying districts, Uthungulu, Umkhanyakude and Umzinyathi, had prevented a worst-case scenario developing.
“By the sound of things, the fire in Winterton might have been caused by chicken manure spontaneously igniting. In northern KwaZulu-Natal, we had electricity cables sparking after being damaged by high winds, but no one can yet say exactly what the causes of the fires were,” said Diedericks.
She said the cost of providing immediate relief to homeless victims would run into millions. “For now, emergency shelters are being provided, so people have got something over their heads, something to keep them warm, and food,” said Diedericks.
Barnsley said, given the extent of the losses, insurers would go all out to establish what started the major fires to see if negligence played a role.
He said the fire protection officer had reported that all key strategic breaks were in place.
“And I don’t think there is a firebreak that would have stopped those fires. The winds were freakish. We had a fire crossing a 300m wide forestry break. How do you stop that? How wide do you go?” asked Barnsley.
Rural Metro director Chris Gilbert said the response to fires in rural areas urgently needed national, provincial and local government attention.
“The cities generally have five-star fire services, but in rural areas – more than 80 percent of South Africa – there is practically nothing, so they are always hit the hardest, like now,” he said.
“Alternative options are needed to ensure that firefighters get out there and help people in time.”
Rural Metro’s operations manager, Dave Whittaker, agreed that the disaster would have been worse had it not been for the co-ordinated efforts of farmers, municipalities, and private companies and organisations, including the Fire Protection Association and Working on Fire. “Everyone put their shoulders to the wheel. It was a real team effort. We must give particular credit to farming communities in Melmoth and Dundee,” said Whittaker.
With fire indices high, grass fires and veld fires continued breaking out all over KwaZulu-Natal throughout the week, but all were contained, said Whittaker.
Speaking after receiving a briefing of further fires out at Mandeni on Friday, Agriculture MEC Mtholephi Mthimkhulu said despite appeals to people to take note of the high fire danger index, veld fires were still mushrooming all over the province, particularly in rural areas, destroying vast tracts of grazing land, worsening what was already a provincial disaster.