This is according to Richard Walls from the Fire Engineering Research Unit (FireSUN) at Stellenbosch University.
He was speaking at the release of an in-depth authoritative and independent report, commissioned by short-term insurer Santam, into the devastating fires that struck the Knysna area in June 2017.
The Knysna fires were the worst wildfire disaster in South African history and the report found that their severity was caused by a cocktail of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel.
Walls said during his presentation that the economic cost of the Knysna fire was at least R3.3bn.
“This is a minimum figure. This excludes the untold losses of those who lost homes, businesses, jobs, the local economy - and these were publicly accessible numbers. This excludes some of the departments or areas which weren't in the public domain and other areas where it was very difficult to quantify the cost. This was the bare minimum,” said Walls.
Referring to a pie chart of who took the brunt of the cost, he said the insurance industry took 75.5percent, forestry was hit for 22.1percent while 7.4percent impacted industries such as fisheries, public works, education and municipal infrastructure.
Walls said should big events such as this happen again, it would be a huge strain on the country.
He said the core message was that although population growth, urban expansion and climate change are inevitable, it was possible to reduce the risk of destructive fires and their impact. “This requires recognising that our current fragmented approaches to fire management are not effective,” said Walls.
He also highlighted the role of social media during his presentation, saying social media was extensively used during the disaster, with Facebook being used more by residents tracking the fire and Twitter used more for relief.
It also advised municipalities to engage more with social media.
Walls added that where possible, the insurance industry should help build the capacity of municipal fire services to deal with wildfires and support prescribed burning by extending insurance cover for these.
He said the industry should also require policy holders to undertake measures to reduce risk and develop more affordable insurance products for the so-called “missing middle”.
In conclusion, he said the costs of the Knysna fires to the town and its inhabitants showed the importance of implementing effective measures to reduce risk in South Africa.
“When living in fire-prone environments, residents, landowners and fire management agencies have a shared responsibility for reducing fire risk,” said Walls.
John Melville, chief underwriting officer at Santam, said that among other critical factors, the report showed that there were gaps in the training of the those involved in suppression of wildfires, incident command and evacuation, as well as in response planning.
“With fuel being defined as combustible materials, this is a good place to start for all parties, government, business and communities, in terms of fire prevention and control. Municipalities can play a role in managing fuel loads on municipal land, particularly on land bordering vulnerable communities,” said Melville.
He added that insurers could help by requiring policy holders to undertake measures to reduce risk, for example reducing flammable materials and creating defensible spaces around homes.
Melville said another key recommendation was that insurers develop more affordable insurance products for the “missing middle”, the households not sufficiently impoverished to be supported by government welfare but who are unfortunately not able to afford insurance.