Facebook helped track the Knysna wildfire while Twitter aided in organising relief efforts, a report from Stellenbosch University’s Fire Engineering Research Unit showed. Picture: David Ritchie/ANA Pictures
Cape Town - Social media was the unsung hero of the 2017 Knysna fires and an independent disaster report released on Thursday recommends that municipality communications teams should make more use of social networking to improve communication with the public.

According to Richard Walls, who heads up Stellenbosch University’s Fire Engineering Research Unit (FireSUN), social media was extensively used during the incident.

Walls, who delivered a slide presentation during the launch of the report, said that while “Facebook was used more by Knysna residents tracking the fire, Twitter was used more in the relief efforts that followed”.

The report, Minimising The Risk And Impact Of Another Mega-Fire In South Africa, recommended that “municipality communications teams must identify high-profile social media influencers and enlist their support in spreading messages and directing users to information sources”.

Another key recommendation was that insurers develop more affordable insurance products for the so-called missing middle, the households which are not sufficiently impoverished to be supported by government welfare but which are not able to afford insurance.

Communities could also join the local Fire Protection Association (FPA), the report said, and participate in setting up fire-wise communities.Residents and landowners should work with FPAs to map and monitor the extent and densities of invasive alien plant regrowth accurately.

This is fundamental to determining the amount and duration of funding required to control the massive regeneration of invading plant species after fires.

The report also encourages all residents to regularly check that they are adequately insured against fire.

Other recommendations in the report commissioned by short-term insurer Santam included managing or controlling the presence of fire-prone vegetation and other combustible or flammable material on tracts of land, attending to all fire call-outs (even if they don’t appear threatening) and greater focus on public education and awareness programmes on the risks associated with wildfires.

The Knysna fires were the worst wildfire disaster in South Africa’s history.

Santam commissioned the report from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction and FireSUN.

The report found that its severity was caused by a cocktail of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel.

John Melville, Santam chief underwriting officer, said: “Unfortunately, these conditions remain prevalent in many parts of South Africa.

“Our goal was to analyse the causes of the Knysna fires and to find out why it was so severe, but more importantly the purpose was to establish how we can reduce the risk of recurrence and the severity of such fires should they reoccur.

“While we can’t do anything about conditions created by climate change, we can take steps to reduce the frequency and magnitude of wildfires.”

@MwangiGithahu

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Cape Argus