The Knysna fires of 2017: a grim disaster but also an opportunity

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    The 7th of June 2017 will be remembered as the worst wildfire disaster in South Africa’s history, causing financial losses of at least R3 billion. Although it burnt a relatively small area of 19 000 ha, its speed and ferocity and the fact that Knysna lay directly in its path, resulted in massive socio-economic and environmental impacts. This tragic event changed thinking about how to prepare for and respond to wildfires both during and after such fires. Information on the fire itself, its direct impacts and the aftermath featured prominently in the media, leading to an unprecedented national effort to support those affected and to rebuild the town and its economy.

    In response to this fire and the high likelihood of more fires of its kind, Santam commissioned the CSIR and Stellenbosch University to investigate the disaster to improve the understanding of the pre-fire situation, the incident itself and the post fire recovery efforts. The CSIR’s research focused primarily on the spread and dynamics of the fire, particularly the roles of the weather and fuels, and the post-fire environmental recovery measures. Stellenbosch University research focused primarily on the damage done to the town and the house losses, and on the responses of the authorities and society during and after the fire.

    The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Research Group at the CSIR were approached by Santam because of their record of fire research and the work they had done on characterising fire risk both nationally and within the Fynbos biome. The researchers also were in the process of finalising their work on the Green Book which involved assessing the fire risks for nearly 1 600 towns in South Africa. This assessment assessed the risks wildfires pose to these settlements under the current climate and for two periods in the future under future climates. Knysna was assessed to have a high fire risk during this study, and the impacts of the fires illustrate what can happen if such high fire risks are not addressed.

    Based on the information gathered during this study, the researchers made a series of recommendations on the changes that need to be made if we are to substantially reduce the risk of similar fires in the future. The full synthesis report is available here: https://www.santam.co.za/about-us/media/corporate-news/knysna-fires-of-2017-santam-releases-independent-disaster-report/. The findings make it clear that the benefits of taking measures to reduce fuel loads, make homes more fire-resistant and strengthen response capacity, far outweigh the costs.

    Contact Person

    Dr David Le Maitre