Knysna fires: Tally of destruction grows

A house after the fire in Knysna.

KNYSNA NEWS - The tally of houses completely destroyed by the Garden Route fires has risen to a staggering 1 059, according to the Knysna municipality’s fire disaster damage register.
 
The number of houses that were just damaged in the fires, has risen to 385.
 
The runaway fires that began on June 7 and burned along a 300km fire line for nearly two weeks, stretched from Great Brak to outside Port Elizabeth. Knysna was the hardest hit, particularly the suburb of Knysna Heights where 263 houses, all formal dwellings, were destroyed or damaged by fire – just under 20% of all houses in the suburb.
 
Next was White Location, where 259 homes were damaged or destroyed – 19.2% of all dwellings there.
 
While the authorities continue with repairs to infrastructure, they are still counting the monetary cost of the fires, according to mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies.
 
She said that once the provincial government has submitted its report on the full extent and cost of the fire damage, the national government would indicate how much it would contribute in relief aid. She said national government has already said they could help immediately with the creation of 500 jobs in the fire clean-up programme.
 
50% Uninsured
Bouw-Spies said she was concerned that more than 50% of houses damaged by fire was not insured. The majority of houses destroyed were formal dwellings.
 
The online fire disaster register is continually updated as new information about damage comes in.
 
After Knysna Heights and White Location, other areas where many houses were destroyed or damaged by fire are: Brenton-on-Sea where 99 houses were affected, which is 7.3% of the total number of houses in the suburb; Eastford 95 (7.03%); Paradise 91 (6.8%); Knysna CBD 67 (4.97%); Welbedacht 63 (4.7%); Concordia 54 (3.8%); Nekkies 44 (3.2%); Rheenendal 34 (2.5%); Upper Place 23 (1.7%) and Belvidere 20 (1.4%).
 
Suburbs where the number of houses destroyed or damaged was below 20 are: Greenfields 16 (1.19%); Noetzie 14 (46.2%) Brenton-on-Lake 13 (0.97%); Oupad 12 (0.89%); Buffalo Bay 10 (0.75%); Dam se Bos 9 (0.67%); Flenters 8 (0.60%); Joodse Kamp 8 (0.60%); Karatara 7 (0.52%); Khayalethu 7 (0.53%); Rhobobolo 7 (0.52%); Hornlee East 6 (0.45%); Hornlee West 7 (0.52%); Enthembeni 6 (0.45%); Hunter’s Home 5 (0.60%); Sedgefield 4 (0.3%); Bongani 4 (0.30%); Lower Place 3 (0.23%) and Rexford 2 (0.15%).
 
Major problems 
Councillor Mark Willemse told residents at a report-back meeting that a major problem in fighting the massive fires had been the lack of communications as well as electricity outages.
 
Landlines were down and Cell C and MTN were not operating. Vodacom had been working.
 
“Comms was an issue. We used SMSes and loud hailers. One thing we can work on better and can change is communications,” Willemse said at the meeting.
 
Another problem was that the joint operating centre coordinating the firefighting and evacuation operations, had been without electricity.
 
Willemse said Knysna’s entire disaster management plan would be changed “drastically” in the wake of the massive fires, which at times were burning in 26 different places.
 
“The fires have been a good kick up the butt to wake us up to just what disasters can cause. We will look at anything and everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
 
The mayor said at the meeting that a major lesson learned was the difficulty in getting in and out of Knysna in the event of extensive fires.
 
“The road network is a problem. At one time both exits from Knysna were closed because of fires. At one stage we were looking at evacuating 6 000 people from Rheenendal, but we couldn’t get the “Go George!” buses in from George. Luckily we didn’t have to evacuate them,” Bouw-Spies said.
 
Climate change
Experts have said the number of natural disasters such as fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather events is increasing as a result of global climate change. Asked if Knysna would take the reality of climate change into account in its future disaster management plan, Bouw-Spies said, “We will adopt a climate change adaptation strategy. It is time for us to make sure that we do that.”
 
Another factor that fuelled the fires was the vast amount of alien vegetation in the area, which burns hotter and spreads faster than indigenous vegetation. Willemse said the council would tackle the enforcement of alien-tree clearing. Landowners outside the urban edge are legally bound to clear their properties of certain invasive alien vegetation, which consumes large quantities of water and is a fire hazard.
 
Asked if the council would ensure that controlled burns are done at Knysna’s large housing estates, where this was a condition of approval when the provincial government gave the estates development approval, Willemse said the council would do so.
 
There were 25 tourist establishments damaged, which represented about 500 beds. About 2 500 people had lost jobs. The mayor said she is concerned that domestic workers would also lose their jobs in cases where their employers have lost their houses.
 
Incentives to rebuild
The council is worried that some residents who were insured would decide not to rebuild but would take their insurance payouts and leave Knysna. This would have a negative effect on the rates base.
 
The council is considering incentives to prevent this, and as a start would waive building plan fees for those houses that were rebuilt according to the original plans. The council is also discussing how it could ensure that houses are built in a more sustainable way, incorporating rainwater tanks and renewable energy.
 
“We really need to be greener in this town,” Willemse said.
 
Knysna has more than enough donations of clothing and does not need more. What it needs now is tinned food, toiletries and “white goods” such as toasters, kettles and microwaves.
 
Bouw-Spies said many people from all walks of life came to help during the fire.
 
“I have really been humbled by all the assistance and help, and all the people who just want to do something, anything,” she said. – Melanie Gosling


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