SANParks release investigative report on devastating Cape wildfire

Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

South African National Parks (SANParks) said an independent report on the wildfire on Sunday, 18 April 2021 ruled out natural causes such as rock falls or lightning strikes, or an accidental/negligent incident such as an abandoned camping/cooking fire as the cause – essentially eliminating the possibility that the blaze was started by homeless persons, as was initially alleged.

This according to SANParks Acting Chief Executive Officer, Dr Luthando Dziba, who said various potential causes of the fire were thoroughly assessed by an independent investigator – Enviro Wildfire (Pty) Ltd. He stated that the investigation report provides compelling evidence suggesting that the fire may have been started as a malicious act. This evidence is currently being investigated by law enforcement agencies.

The report states that according to CCTV footage and eyewitnesses, the fire started at approximately 08:40. Fire investigator Rob Erasmus indicated that the CCTV footage showed a vehicle that was closely parked to the origin of the fire. Further details about the vehicle were not disclosed in the report.

The fire was also started under extreme weather conditions such as very warm temperatures. According to SANParks, these conditions in addition to dry vegetation presented an ideal environment for the rapid spread of the fire due to the high fire danger index. In turn, the increase in wind speed and a change in the wind direction caused embers to land outside of the burn area where they ignited the surrounding veld.

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According to Dr Dziba, the situation could have been much worse if the strategic relationship between SANParks and various stakeholders including the City of Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality were not in place. “This provided for a well-organised effort in suppressing the fire from the ground and air-support within reasonably good time.”

The firefighting team consisted of SANParks, NCC Environmental Services (Pty) Ltd, City of Cape Town, Working on Fire, Volunteers Wildfire Services and the South African National Defence Force. A total of five firefighters were injured while fighting the fire. “These men and women acted in the best interest of the community despite the extremely grim weather conditions and did so at their own risk to their welfare and safety.”

Extensive damage occurred to the Rhodes Memorial restaurant, University of Cape Town and the historic Mostert Mill and various private properties as a result of windblown smouldering embers landing in and on dry combustible materials such as thatch, exotic pines, palm trees, ivy and leaves in gutters.

Dr Dziba, of SANParks, also thanked Cape Town residents and businesses for their generosity and donations of food, drinks and other necessities for the firefighters and extend his sincere thanks to the firefighters for their bravery and dedication. He also thanked the members of the public who assisted the investigation.

The full independent fire report is available to read, right here. Source | Press Release SANParks

Some Notable Excerpts from the SANParks fire report:

  • On Sunday morning 18 April 2021 at approximately 08h40 a fire originated on Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) property in the area known as Hospital Bend in close proximity to Philip Kgosana Drive.
  • The weather conditions, as confirmed by weather data, CCTV camera footage and eyewitness accounts were a calm/very light breeze (the smoke was going straight up), the air being warm and dry, and these conditions prevailed until approximately 10h00.
  • Due to the unusually and extremely dry conditions (the humidity dropped to below 15%) smouldering embers in the warm smoke column started to fall outside of the burn area from about 10h15 when the wind increased in speed and changed to a north-westerly direction. These embers caused new fires to start over a wide area.
  • The TMNP was and continues to be a member of the local fire protection association (Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association). TMNP complied with the legal requirements of the National Veld and Forest Fire Act including aspects pertaining to the preparation and maintenance of firebreaks, as well as the readiness for firefighting and actions to fight fires.
  • The clearing and eradication of alien vegetation within the TMNP is an ongoing task. Over the past 36 months, approximately 620 ha have been cleared in the area where the fire occurred and an amount of R 5.1m spent since 2011. This is in addition to the approximately R 63m that has been spent over the past 4 years in other parts of the Park.
  • The TMNP has an active fuel reduction and ecological burning programme that is implemented upon the approval of burning permits issued by the City of Cape Town.
  • The extremely low humidity coupled with an increase in wind speed and a change in the wind direction caused embers carried in the warm smoke column to land outside of the burn area where they ignited the surrounding veld. The dry vegetation and wind caused the fire to spread rapidly over a wide front.

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