Three years since the devastating Knysna wildfires in the Southern Cape
Sunday, 7 June 2020 marks three years since the now memorable and haunting 2017 Knysna and Bitou wildfire disaster. The majority of our readers would remember everything about the event; where they were at any given time; the smell, the sound, the images, the adrenaline, the aftermath edged into the memories of all involved. According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Knysna fires were the worst wildfire disaster in South African history and its report found that the fires' severity was caused by a cocktail of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel. The wildfire also claimed eight lives apart from crippling Garden Route towns and destroying more than 1 000 homes.
In a recent media statement, Cobus Meiring of the Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF) said, “The 2017 Knysna wildfire disaster was without a doubt the most devastating of its kind in the history of Southern Africa. With the loss of life and a badly-affected local economy, irreparable damage done to infrastructure, businesses, agriculture, forestry and property running into trillions of Rand, the Knysna disaster caused unparalleled ecological havoc in an area of over 20 000 hectares.
Gerhard Otto, Head of the Garden Route District Municipality’s Disaster Management Centre said, “From a preparedness level the Garden Route District Disaster Management Centre, local municipalities, nature conservations entities, forestry as well as regional fire protection associations have, as a collective, ramped up capacity to fight wildfire disaster way beyond what was in place in 2017. Aerial fire fighting capacity, clearing of fire breaks and upgraded fire fighting equipment, all makes for a better-prepared region dealing with regular and intense wildfire scenarios.”
Otto added, “The 2017 Knysna wildfire disaster was caused by a perfect storm of climate change, super strong winds, possible human error and the prevalence of large-scale invasive alien plants in the landscape, all of which contributed to the scale and ferocity of the disaster. For instance, in as much as disaster management and fire fighting services are better resourced than three years ago, there is still too much invasive alien plants in the landscape that has the potential to provide the biofuel necessary for a repeat of the 2017 wildfire disaster. Landowners, in general, do their best, within their means, to eradicate and control invasive alien plant growth on their land but the task at hand is a mammoth one and much more needs to be done in order to achieve a fire-safe environment in the Southern Cape.”
“COVID-19 has had a severe and tangible effect on the socio-economic fabric of the Southern Cape and we know that the real challenge the advent of the pandemic is posing, is still nowhere near its true impact. Both COVID-19 and climate change will affect the future of the present-day Southern Cape dramatically. The new normal should no doubt include a rethink of how we manage our environment at all levels, not only for exposure to wildfire risk but, just as important, the way we manage human settlement, water security and biodiversity conservation,” said Otto.
“As we commemorate the physical horror of the 2017 Knysna wildfire disaster and now having to deal with the trauma of COVID-19, all stakeholders and communities in the Southern Cape will have to take hands, develop an understanding of what the future will force upon us, and plan ahead for a safer and more secure region,” concluded Otto.
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