Knysna Fires of 2017: Santam releases independent disaster report

3 min read 06 June 2019

An in-depth authoritative and independent report, commissioned by short-term insurer Santam, into the devastating fires that struck the Knysna area in June 2017  has found that the risk of so-called ‘mega-fires’ recurring in South Africa remains high.

The Knysna Fires of 2017: Learning from this disaster report makes a number of recommendations for government, communities, the insurance industry and other stakeholders towards minimising the risk of future ‘mega-fires’ – and the remedial steps to be taken in reducing the social and financial impact of such disasters should they occur.

Key among these recommendations are: managing or controlling the presence of fire-prone vegetation and other combustible or flammable material on tracts of land, usually referred to as fuel loads; attending to all fire callouts -even if they don’t appear threatening; greater focus on public education and awareness programmes on the risks associated with wildfires.

Santam commissioned the report from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR) and the Fire Engineering Research Unit (FireSUN) at Stellenbosch University.

The Knysna fires were the worst wildfire disaster in South African history. The report found that its’ severity was caused by a cocktail of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel.

John Melville, Chief Underwriting Officer at Santam says that unfortunately, these conditions remain prevalent in many parts of South Africa.

“Our goal was analyse the causes of the Knysna fires and to find out why it was so severe, but more importantly the purpose was to establish how we can reduce the risk of recurrence and the severity of such fires should they reoccur. While we can’t do anything about conditions created by climate change, we can take steps to reduce the frequency and magnitude of wildfires.”

He added that the report found responders were remarkably successful in saving lives.

“However among other critical factors, the report showed that there were gaps in the training of the suppression of wildfires, incident command and evacuation and as well as in response planning.”

Among the key recommendations outlined in the report includes the necessity for government to better manage and control fuel loads on municipal land - especially along wildland-urban-interfaces (WUIs). The report states that fires need heat, oxygen and fuel to burn.

“With fuel being defined as combustible materials, this is a good place to start for all parties – government, business and communities – in terms of fire prevention and control. Municipalities can play a role in managing fuel loads on municipal land, particularly on land bordering vulnerable communities. Similarly, communities can do so on private land,” says Melville.

Authorities were also urged, among other actions, to strengthen the fire danger index component of the national fire danger rating system, strengthen their capacity to respond to wildfires and plan post-fire environmental recovery and rehabilitation properly.

The report urged the insurance industry to help build the capacity of municipal fire services to deal with wildfire prevention and response. Melville says the report also urged insurers to support prescribed burning by extending insurance cover for the execution of such preventive measures.

“Insurers can help by requiring policy-holders to undertake measures to reduce risk – for example reducing flammable materials and creating defensible spaces around homes.”

Another key recommendation was that insurers develop more affordable insurance products for the so called ‘missing middle’, the households which are not sufficiently impoverished to be supported by government welfare but who are unfortunately not able to afford insurance.

Communities could also join the local Fire Protection Association (FPA), the report said, and participate in setting up FireWise communities. Residents and landowners should work together with FPAs to map and monitor the extent and densities of invasive alien plant regrowth accurately; this is fundamental to determining the amount and duration of funding required to control the massive regeneration of invading plant species after fires. The report also encourages all residents to regularly check that they are adequately insured against fire.

The full report can be found here.