KNYSNA NEWS - In the midst of all its other woes, Knysna Municipality will have to defend a legal claim by a group of Elandskraal residents who are suing it for the damages they incurred during the 2017 Knysna Fires.
The wildfires that ravaged the Greater Knysna area three years ago have become ingrained in the memories of locals, many who lost millions of rand in property in the blaze that started on 7 June 2017.
Several lives were also lost in the fire. After the disaster, claims surfaced that the wildfires could have been prevented if correct and swift action had been taken before the fires raged out of control.
Cause of fire disputed
The cause of the fire has been fiercely debated, with many fingers eventually pointing at the then Knysna fire chief Clinton Manuel, who claimed in his report that the blaze was started by a person or persons in Elandskraal. Four separate scientific and forensic reports have since refuted Manuel's claims.
These reports were by top forensic investigator Dr David Klatzow (appointed by AfriForum); the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); Vulcan Wildfire Management (appointed by the Western Cape Government); and Santam (jointly compiled by the CSIR, the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction, and the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University).
All these reports found that the fires were caused by the existence and spread of a smouldering fire that in all probability had been caused by a lightning strike in the Elandskraal area on 22 March 2017.
Dr Wallace Vosloo, who lives near the site where the underground fire was reportedly sparked and who is one of the 20 plaintiffs in the case, told Knysna-Plett Herald in 2017 that the smouldering at the Elandskraal site had been reported to the authorities many weeks before it had caused widespread damage but that nothing had been done to stop it.
After a KPH article was published on the outcome of the initial investigations under the title "Pants on fire" in 2018, Manuel reported the newspaper to the press ombudsman, who ruled on the case in our favour.
The Elandskraal group of claimants believe Knysna Municipality and its fire services neglected their duty to deal with the fire before it turned into the raging inferno that destroyed the lives of thousands.
According to the summons, filed on 25 May with the Cape Town High Court, the group is made up of 20 plaintiffs comprising one closed corporation and 19 individuals. In the document, they make a number of claims implicating the municipality as having possessed certain knowledge at the time of the fires, including that "a fire on the farm [portion 80 of the farm Elandskraal 203] had been reported in April 2017", and that "the same fire was reported to the Defendant [municipality] several times between April and 7 June 2017".
The court document further claims that the municipality "failed to detect, to control and to extinguish a veldfire or veldfires on the farm timeously, properly or at all". When asked about their stance on the claimants' allegations, municipal spokesperson Christopher Bezuidenhoudt stated that they will not discuss the matter as the case is sub judice, but confirmed that the municipality will be defending the action.
The residents are claiming a total of R17 231 184,40, of which the largest claim amounts to R5 348 376, and are requesting that if judgement is in their favour, the municipality also pays interest on this sum at 10% a year as well as the costs of the suit, and any further and/or alternative relief the court may deem fit.
'Justice for lives lost'
Even though the case is about claiming back the damages incurred, the plaintiffs' legal representatives, Klagsbrun Edelstein Bosman Du Plessis Attorneys (KEBD), say it is also about justice for lives lost during the fires.
"The recovery of financial losses, even though important, is secondary. Tony, Madré and little Michael Johnston, who died during the fires, were part of the Elandskraal community," said Jean du Plessis of KEBD. "The action is dedicated to their memory and an effort to obtain justice for them."
Du Plessis said he and the claimants are positive that the case can be won, but are hoping that it could be settled before going to court. "The intention is to discuss the matter with the Knysna Municipality and reach common ground on the matter," he said.
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