The devastating fires resulted in 5 000 residents fleeing their homes. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS
Knysna - As the flames and smoke along the Garden Route began to dissipate, massive mop-up operations got under way this week to prevent further destruction.

A large number of devastating fires have swept through the Southern Cape since last Wednesday, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The fires - which were mainly focused around Knysna and Plettenberg Bay - saw about 5000 residents flee their homes, led to the destruction of about 700 homes and other structures, claimed the lives of seven locals, and burnt through more than 20000 hectares of land.

Efforts to deal with the fires have been dubbed by disaster management experts as the “the biggest disaster rescue operation in South African history”.

The fires - which flared up several times over the past week and saw more than 1000 firefighters from around the country battle the flames - had finally been contained by Monday.

Working on Fire (WOF) spokesman Lauren Howard said 480 firefighters would remain in the region for the next week to deal with mop-up operations. This involves clearing hot spots, building firebreaks, and ensuring that still-smouldering areas were completely extinguished to prevent further flames.

“We estimate that most of the work would be completed within the next week,” Howard said.

She said firefighters were still involved in monitoring hot spot areas including around Sedgefield, Goudveld, Simola in Knysna and Elandskraal. Knysna fire chief Clinton Manual said there were still a few smouldering areas, but that these did not pose any danger. “We will be water-bombing these areas as they are mostly inaccessible to ground crew.”

Howard said getting to this point - where fires were contained and mop-up operations could begin - had taken massive efforts from various roleplayers of which Working on Fire contributed the majority of the manpower. The team also consisted of 485 firefighters from across the country. Eight fire engines, six buses and two helitack support vehicles were utilised. Three spotter planes and two helicopters were also used.

The SANDF also deployed two Oryx helicopters and a BK117 chopper.

In the meantime, Knysna mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies said that mopping up extended further than preventing the flames from reigniting.

“Knysna will rise, and we will rise stronger than ever before,” Bouw-Spies said.

Knysna and Plett have been declared local disaster areas.

“Thousands of residents have been affected by these devastating fires that ravaged our town. Greater Knysna has received an unprecedented outpouring of support from residents across South Africa and abroad, and have begun to rebuild our town. Donations received will be used towards this.”

She said this week structures had been created to ensure the Knysna disaster fund was managed with transparency and strict accountability.

Bouw-Spies said that the town’s infrastructure had taken a serious knock affecting the provision of electricity, water and sewage.

She added the fires had highlighted dangers around the town’s road system.

Bouw-Spies said among the reasons the fire had been so devastating included the drought and the proliferation of alien vegetation.

“Programmes must now be put in place to remove and limit the new growth of alien vegetation. The hillsides and dunes that have been laid bare by the fires need to be rehabilitated as a matter of urgency. Should there be heavy rainfall, mud slides may be a reality. Consequent silting can damage the Knysna River Estuary and the lagoon with long-term effects on the water and ecosystem.”

She said that the fires had also taken a toll on the business sector, with several small to medium businesses having been destroyed.

“The disaster funds will be utilised to provide support of varying kinds to assist small businesses to restart, or new ventures to come into being.”

Meanwhile, national government has committed to provide R75 million to addressing the damage in Knysna and its surrounding areas. 

Garden Route Media