Knysna’s Great Fire of 2017

July 3, 2017

MTO's Kruisfontein plantation with staff houses in the centre. In the background is the Harkerville indigenous forest that did not burn except on the edges.

(With apology to ‘The Great Fire of 1869’)

by Theo Stehle
On the fateful day of 7th June 2017 a set of circumstances triggered a disastrous wildfire of unprecedented proportions in the Sedgefield-Knysna-Plettenberg bay area. Not only were vast areas of commercial plantations consumed, but lives were lost, and damage of billions of rands caused to properties and infrastructure. It was probably the biggest fire disaster in South Africa in modern times, with over 1 000 fire fighting personnel from all over the country deployed to combat it.

Forestry fires also raged in the Tsitsikamma and further east in the Sarah Baartman District Municipality, viz. in the MTO Forestry plantations Witelsbosch and Longmore. The MTO Longmore sawmill burnt down in the fire. Fires also created havoc in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area.

The extent and intensity of this fire reminds one of the 1869 ‘Great Fire’ which raged out of control between Riversdale and Uitenhage for weeks, also after a prolonged serious drought and under similar extreme fire danger conditions. However, there the similarity ends, for those fires were bergwind driven, and the area was sparsely populated, having largely consisted of natural vegetation with little human development. Alien invasive species and exotic plantations were unknown.

With the writing of this news report, a week after the event and with most of the detail information still outstanding, mopping up operations are continuing over a large area and Tsitsikamma fires are still burning.

The event of 7th June was something local foresters greatly feared for weeks before the disaster – it was a time bomb waiting for the fuse to be lit. It was preceded by a few weeks of extremely dry and warm weather conditions, with the past months having experienced rainfall far below the average. Soil moisture was all but depleted and vegetation was suffering from drought. In the early morning hours a gusty, gale force north westerly wind such as had not been experienced in living memory, and which during the course of the day reached speeds of up to 90 km/h, hit the area. A set of weather conditions known as a ‘cut-off low’ with exceptionally strong winds had been forecast a week before, and all schools in the Western Cape closed for that day.

Two main fires, followed by a number of smaller fires, started from the Elandskraal area north east of Sedgefield and in the MTO Kruisfontein Plantation just east of the Knysna urban area. Both fires were fuelled by forestry plantations and fynbos vegetation in places invaded heavily with exotic aliens like black wattle, blackwood, gum and pine, fanned by the extremely strong wind, which caused them to spread at amazing speeds. Spot fires were ignited kilometres ahead of the main front, through burning material flung high into the air.

Within several hours the western-most fire had devastated vast areas of vegetation and then in the afternoon suddenly threatened urban areas that had been regarded as safe from fire – that is, under “normal” high fire danger conditions. Within half an hour of jumping the Knysna River the spearhead of the fire entered Knysna’s urban areas, consuming everything burnable in its path, and completely surprised the residents of the western portion of Knysna who were totally unprepared before they evacuated in haste. Although in total seven lives were lost, mostly in rural areas around Knysna and Sedgefield, it was a miracle that none were lost inside the town.

One of the characteristics of this fire was that no human efforts or devices were able to make any impression on it. The strong wind and dense smoke made it impossible. Helicopters could only be deployed from the second day onwards, after most of the assets had been destroyed. The focus was on saving lives by evacuating people.

At this point in time the statistics are astounding: In Knysna between 700 and 1000 houses were destroyed, and in Plettenberg Bay another 100 houses were burnt, the majority of which stood in relatively upmarket residential areas. MTO lost 1 800 ha plantation at Kruisfontein, at least 2 200 ha at Witelsbosch and 5 600 ha plus the sawmill at Longmore. A small area at Kransbos was burnt. PG Bison apparently lost most of its 8 000 ha of plantations, while Whitcher in the Tsitiskamma lost a few hundred ha.

Pine compartment in the southern Cape on fire.

The main indigenous state and private forests were damaged on their edges in places, with numerous spot fires having been lit inside the forests, which is usual under these conditions. They may smoulder on the forest floor for weeks if it doesn’t rain abundantly, causing underground fires that may topple big trees and create gaps in the canopy. Small forest patches have suffered damage in Knysna and in surrounding areas, and where they were surrounded by pine plantations, may have completely burnt down. Scrub forest which developed through lack of fire was totally wiped out.

Sustainability of timber supply in the southern Cape particularly, which is already staggering under the destabilisation of the timber industry as a result of a calamitous State plantation exit policy, has now received another heavy blow with the gap in supply being increased further by an estimated 
1 million m³. The implications of this loss are such that Forestry South Africa together with Sawmilling SA is planning a strategic meeting with all growers and sawmillers in the area during June.

The combatting of the fires and the coordinated responses to all the aspects of the disaster were conducted under the control of the American system of unified incident command (ICS), to which a Joint Operational Centre (JOC) in Knysna as well as a Multiple Agency Committee (MAC) reported. The local FPA management played a significant role in the JOC after the worst of the fire was over.

Technology was used to great effect, including drones to spot and guide pilots of fire fighting aircraft to hot spots.

The MAC is made up of various key role-players, inter alia the SADF, Municipalities, SASSA, Red Cross, and SANParks. SANParks, availing over the best GIS capacity, was tasked with a thorough post-fire survey of the area between Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay. Wilderness Search and rescue has provided ten multi-disciplinary teams each with an all-terrain vehicle and equipment made available for this purpose. This will provide the basis for analysing all the aspects contributing to the disaster, and for formulating a strategy for the future through focus working groups under the MAC, for inter alia the environment, commercial forestry, local economic development and tourism. The vision is to reconstruct a post-fire landscape from macro to micro level which will contain all the elements of the lessons learnt from this event.

Satellite image showing the areas in red that were burnt. The Knysna lagoon can clearly be seen at the centre of the image.

There is general consensus that abnormal climatic conditions caused by climate change prepared the scene for this great fire of 2017. Some scientists talk about a 150-year cycle for this event to recur, however, measurement of rainfall does not even date back that far, not to mention other weather parameters.

Some serious challenges lie ahead for this area. An explosion of alien invader plants is expected to fill the vacuum left by a topsoil damaged by a very hot fire, out-competing indigenous vegetation regrowth, creating even higher fire risk and destabilising the soil.

Should it start raining, heavy downpours may cause serious erosion in areas where the soil has been totally denuded. Future increasing prolonged drought conditions may make it difficult to re-establish vegetation.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, June 2017

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Wally Menne
Wally Menne
6 years ago

comment image In my opinion these plantation fires were largely self-inflicted through mismanagement of the resource by the timber companies concerned. Inadequate attention to the uncontrolled spread of introduced alien trees (mostly highly flammable Pinus pinaster) into supposedly protected fynbos areas, coupled with an excessively high fuel load level within the actual plantations, must surely have created the real "time bomb waiting for the fuse to be lit".

But will the timber industry take responsibility for the social and environmental costs of the disaster? It is highly unlikely, because DAFF and the DTI (IDC) have vested interests (shares) in the timber industry and will therefore do their best to protect the negligent parties.

So here comes another massive bail-out at taxpayer expense!

Wally Menne

Martin Hatchuel
Martin Hatchuel
6 years ago

Thanks Theo. The question of the resurgence of the aliens after a fire is worrying. From my window at home, I can see across the Knysna Estuary to the Brenton shore and Featherbed Nature Reserve, which were flattened as you know. Basically that area's just a huge sand dune with nothing left now to bind it. Having worked at Featherbed for many years (and having cut aliens there often during that time), I know that access is almost impossible because the slopes are so steep. This fire's going to force us to come up with some radically new ideas and technologies for access so that eradication becomes viable.

Theo Stehle
Theo Stehle
6 years ago

I happened to be there when it happened. Don't be simplisitc. With such a lethal cocktail: Hurricane force wind (120 km/h), high temperature (30 deg), humidity (8%) and high fuel loads of all kinds of vegetation, the exact type of vegetation would have hardly mattered, as long as there was enough fuel to feed the appetite of the fire. Forestry plantations can hardly be blamed for being the root cause of the disaster. In Knysna Heights itself, ironically, a kloof with indigenous scrub forest, which normally is quite fire resistant, was devoured as if it was a pine plantation, and that is where most houses burnt down. Yes, the urban interface neglect is a major problem.

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