The Knysna joint operations centre was established in the municipal building in Clyde Street after the realisation that the fire station (pictured) was too small to deal with the magnitude of the recent fires.
KNYSNA NEWS - “Don’t tell me I saved lives, all I did was prevent lives from getting lost.” – Knysna Fire Chief, Clinton Manuel.
It was the biggest disaster in South African history, said Manuel who, as incident commander was also in charge of the Knysna joint operations centre (JOC) during the recent Knysna fires.
One thing to know about the recent fires that devastated Knysna, is that it was the first time a Type 1 Incident was declared in South Africa, according to Manuel.
“There are many criteria one has to consider when classifying a disaster. The size of the fire, fuel of the fire, the typography of the area, weather, available resources and structures in danger among other things. When I realised on Wednesday (June 7) that there was no way of stopping the two major fires in Ruigtevlei and Elandskraal, I had to decide what to do.
“When the fire started coming over the White Bridge, and with the fire spreading over such a wide front I immediately activated the provincial response plan. Provincial resources jumped to response after this,” said Manuel.
This activation, he said, gave other municipalities in the province the directive to assist Knysna, which made a huge difference.
“I wouldn’t have done it if the situation didn’t warrant it, and nobody second-guessed me at that point,” Manuel added.
“If the decision wasn’t made on the Wednesday already, many more lives and structures would have been lost.”
This quick response also saw the Knysna JOC being established in the municipal building in Clyde Street after the realisation that the fire station was too small. This JOC eventually became the unified incident command centre for both blazes in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
This Type 1 incident had firefighters and resources from Knysna, George, Eden, Oudtshoorn, Southern Cape Fire Protection Association, Working on Fire, PG Bison, MTO Forestry, Overberg, Overstrand, Cape Town, the West Coast, Breede Valley and Drakenstein joining in the efforts, not to mention firefighters that flew in from Mpumalanga, Gauteng and elsewhere.
According to Manuel there were more than 1 200 firefighters, about 350 vehicles, four SANDF Oryx helicopters, four Huey helicopters, two fixed-wing bomber planes, and two spotter planes involved in fighting the fires – the biggest mobilisation of its type ever.
“No municipal fire service would have been able to stop a blaze like this on its own,” said Manuel.
“Our first objective when the fires started was evacuation. Knysna had never seen this level of operation before, and that is also why the JOC was set up. We needed a central point to manage all our resources from, and that is where I as the incident commander came in,” said Manuel.
He explained that one of the challenges was deciding where to send which teams. Previously he had only dealt with a Type 2 incident; in fact, he said, nobody in South Africa has ever managed a Type 1 incident. “A few people are trained to deal with a Type 1 incident, but nobody has ever had to manage one,” he said.
“With a Type 1 incident there is a lot more involved, but in principle your actions and reactions stay the same. Deploying resources was an immense task, but that is why incident command, or the JOC, is such a beautiful thing,” said Manuel.
Below him in the JOC were operation chiefs, branch commanders and divisional supervisors to help manage all the resources. In total there were 13 different divisions Knysna was divided into that all needed to be covered.
“Everyone had specific tasks they had to complete,” he added.
Manuel said that getting up-to-date weather forecasts and patterns was just as critical as fighting the fire itself.
“Len du Plessis from SANParks was extremely instrumental in this regard. At the height of the disaster we were getting forecasts from him every 30 minutes. At one stage the wind changed a total of eight times in one day. His forecasts were vital in planning how to control the fire over the entire affected area,” said Manuel.
Deciding where to send resources, or to which areas to send resources, was one of the most difficult decisions Manuel has ever had to make.
“We had a big problem in our suburbs, but some of the fire teams were just not suited or equipped to fight the fire in those areas. CapeNature and Working on Fire, for example, are very good with bush fires, but not with structures. Professional firefighters, on the other hand, are trained and equipped to deal with structures. Then you had the different types of vehicles too. I had to make the best decision I could in that moment, there was no time for right or wrong,” said Manuel.
Manuel said that each morning certain objectives for the day would be set after a reconnaissance flight, taking the weather conditions into consideration, too. “After that we would decide what to do and directed the troops to where they were needed, which worked very well.”
“Deciding to send resources into an already burning or destroyed area, or sending them to where they could possibly stop the blaze was also very difficult. I wasn’t prepared to lose people though, or to lose more than had already been lost. I had to make the call: do we save one house, or an entire suburb. This was extremely difficult. I couldn’t second-guess myself. I had to make the best decision I could in the situation,” said Manuel.
“In Buffalo Bay, for example, we needed to protect the residents there and evacuate structures, I wasn’t prepared to lose another suburb. When I sent my men in there I thought to myself: will I ever see them again? Luckily a man I trust very much, Deon van Wyk, was already there creating back burns. I didn’t even know he was in there due to constant struggles with communication throughout the entire ordeal. Although he and his team were almost trapped in there, they made a huge difference and saved all those houses.”
Manuel added that the reason he sent resources into Buffalo Bay was because he knew it was difficult to evacuate, and therefore structures needed protection too. This is just one example of the many extremely difficult decisions he had to make.
“Everything happened so fast, and I struggle to remember what happened exactly on each day. All I know is that we had to do what we had to do. It wasn’t about becoming a hero, it was about doing the job we were trained to do even when knowing you are at a disadvantage, and we had to realise that. With the fire spreading over a kilometre every 10 minutes at one point, we had to keep ahead.”
Manuel said that the Type 1 treatment will remain active for the next two weeks, after which patrols will be managed to monitor the situation.