A fire fighter fights a fire on the lower part of Table Mountain near a residential area in Cape Town, South Africa, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. The wildfire broke out near to Cape Town's central business district. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
A fire fighter fights a fire on the lower part of Table Mountain near a residential area in Cape Town, South Africa, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. The wildfire broke out near to Cape Town's central business district. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

Probe into outbreak of wildfires hots up

By Caryn Dolley Time of article published Jan 16, 2016

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Cape Town - Member of the police’s bomb squad, detectives and other authorities are ramping up efforts to try to determine who is behind a spate of blazes that have repeatedly stretched firefighting resources and caused havoc around the Peninsula since November.

And while gusting winds and searing heat have made fighting fires tough, the worst may not yet be over, with the fire season expected to stretch to May.

This week, because of extreme weather conditions, Table Mountain National Park authorities urged people to be extremely cautious.

“Only braai in designated braai areas, (do) not start illegal fires and discard cigarette butts safely.”

The costs stemming from the wildfires so far, the total of which will be calculated after the fire season, are expected to be exorbitant.

Several hundred blazes have been reported, especially in the south Peninsula, over the past three months, leading to dozens of homes being razed, evacuations and road closures.

On some of the worst days, firefighters have responded to an average of 100 blazes a day.

It is suspected several fires were intentionally started and, as a result, a special task team was created to investigate the outbreaks.

This week Table Mountain National Park manager Paddy Gordon and the park’s fire manager, Philip Prins, issued a statement saying the team consisted of members of the City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue service, its special investigation unit, as well as detectives, the police dog unit and bomb squad.

“The intent is to ensure credible evidence is collected which will lead to successful prosecutions,” it said.

Earlier this week the team met, and members were expected to do so again on Tuesday.

The statement from Gordon and Prins said various wild- fires were being probed. Some may have been accidentally started by homeless people.

“Preliminary clues on the latest fires from Devils Peak to Ocean View indicates that these fires were most likely started by vagrants on the mountain when making illegal cooking fires.

“These fires spin out of control when the wind suddenly picks up and surrounding dry vegetation catches fire.”

But the statement said an intense probe would be conducted into the fires to discover if some were started maliciously.

Water-bombing helicopters were most effective when tackling mountain fires.

However, the statement said that strong winds and the fact some fires had raged deep into the night had meant authorities were often heavily reliant on the actions of firefighters on the ground.

The costs of the fires were yet to be estimated. Mopping-up operations, and interventions to try to prevent flare-ups after a blaze had been extinguished, contributed to costs. This meant a figure could sometimes be calculated only days after a fire was put out.

Safety and security mayoral committee member JP Smith said the task team probing the fires had asked for all the information the city had at its disposal.

“The city and SANParks will be assisting the South African Police Service during the course of the investigation.”

Earlier this month Rob Erasmus, of the non-profit organisation Enviro Wildfire Services which is helping fight fires, alleged probes had disclosed some fires around Masiphumelele and in the Lake Michelle area were related to residents from the informal settlement trying to clear land to build more shacks.

He also said unsupervised children were believed to be behind a spate of blazes in Ocean View.

While the task team had been created to probe the fires, police spokeswoman Constable Noloyiso Rwexana said this week that no specific case dockets had been opened.

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Saturday Argus

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