Knysna Fires

Knysna fire: secret CSIR report bombshell

A secret internal investigation by scientists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research into the origin of the Great Fire that engulfed the Garden Route town of Knysna last year could open the floodgates to negligence lawsuits running into the billions against Knysna Municipality and its fire brigade.

The investigation, conducted by specialist scientists at the CSIR’s prestigious Meraka Institute, set out to establish the origin of what is known as the western fire, which started in the forests of Elandskraal, 20km north-west of Knysna, in the early hours of June 7. Was it a long-smouldering forest fire ignited by lightning? Or a man-made log fire lit by a pine-cone in a farmland clearing?

The Great Fire was the worst, most fearsome conflagration on the Garden Route since 1869. More than 600 firefighters battled its separate blazes for days. Seven people died and 10,000 were evacuated from their homes. Some 487 properties in Eastford, Knysna Heights, Paradise and part of Knysna Central were destroyed and 1,533 households registered as disaster victims with Knysna Municipality.

Eskom engineer and scientist Dr Wallace Vosloo, whose Elandskraal farmhouse was one of the first to be devoured in the fast-moving inferno, claims the western fire’s origin was a lightning strike last April 12, which caused an underground fire that was left to smoulder, unattended for eight weeks. Vosloo, an outdoors zealot addicted to longbow shooting and knife throwing, claims that despite repeated reports to the fire departments at Sedgefield and Knysna, no action was taken.

Forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow

Forensic investigator Dr David Klatzow, retained by AfriForum to investigate the cause of the disaster, agreed with the smouldering-fire hypothesis, concluding that a combination of hot, dry weather conditions and the development of a strong north-west wind, “impelled it to life” to become a fully-fledged runaway fire in the early hours of June 7.

This smouldering-fire theory was dismissed out of hand by Knysna Chief Fire Officer Clinton Manuel and the town’s new municipal manager Kam Chetty. They maintain that the fire was started by an unknown person using a pine-cone as a firelighter in a farmland clearing. At a PowerPoint presentation by Manuel to the media on August 14, municipal manager Chetty stressed that the fire chief’s findings had been driven by “proper scientific methodology”. He said: “We now know for certain that the fire started in the clearing and was consistent with the weather pattern and human activity.”

At the presentation, Chetty and fire chief Manuel both emphasised the importance of the scientific input they had received from the CSIR in coming to their conclusion. At the close, the municipal manager said: “This report included evidence and opinions of the CSIR and several other scientists and I must say that I am extremely impressed with their methodology.”

Knysna fire chief Clinton Manuel

Clinton Manuel’s full 131-page report, devoted entirely to the controversial western fire, was released four days later, on August 18, complete with photographs of the very pine cone – bizarrely pictured on a bed of unscathed dry leaves – and charred logs which he claimed set off the runaway inferno.

Four days after that, AfriForum published the independent report they had commissioned from eminent forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow. Klatzow concluded the cause was the lightning strike site that had been left to smoulder.

In his report Klatzow said: “Of concern is the timely and repeated warnings given to the authorities regarding this fire. It appears that these warnings did not result in any action being taken. Prompt fire prevention methods such as water-bombing and ground crews may very well have averted this western fire catastrophe.”

Chetty retaliated angrily, saying Klatzow’s report was “one-sided and purports to apportion blame on Knysna Municipality”. The municipal manager added: “The Knysna municipal investigation is based on a scientific methodology that included a thorough analysis of aerial and ground evidence and eye-witness accounts.”

The liberal name-dropping of the CSIR by Chetty and Manuel to give weight and authority to the fire chief’s report and its pine-cone conclusion did not go down well at the parastatal.

The CSIR responded by ordering its Meraka Institute to conduct a full scientific investigation into the start of the western fire. The institute’s confidential report is authored by Dr Philip Frost, a senior scientist at the CSIR who heads a group at Meraka called Earth Observation Applications.

This unit’s flagship project is the Advanced Fire Information System (Afis), which uses state-of-the-art technology to provide fire managers across the globe with information about the prediction, detection, monitoring and assessment of wildfires. Using a portfolio of polar orbiting and geostationary satellites to provide near real-time detection of global fire events, Afis specifically allows for the early detection of lightning-caused fires.

Noseweek can reveal that the Meraka Institute report concludes that the devastating western fire had its origin not in the infamous pine-cone, but in the smouldering fire caused by the lightning strike.

This dramatic news, with its far-reaching implications, is revealed by Jean du Plessis, a Pretoria attorney who represents fire victim Dr Wallace Vosloo and a dozen other uninsured Elandskraal residents who lost their homes in the June 7 inferno.

Eskom scientist       Dr Wallace Vosloo

“I can tell you, I’ve seen it (the Meraka Institute report),” says Du Plessis. “It supports our view – the view that we’ve always held – that the fire didn’t emanate from humans being in that area; it emanated from that area that was smouldering for six (sic) weeks.”

So the report’s author, Dr Philip Frost, concluded that the origin of the western fire was the long-smouldering underground fire? “Yes,” says Du Plessis.

Can he remember any detail about Frost’s conclusion? “I can remember a lot,” says the attorney. “I’m just not going to disclose it. I don’t want to embarrass Philip.”

The attorney’s disclosure means that, far from the CSIR’s supplying scientific evidence to substantiate fire chief Manuel’s pine-cone theory, its world-famous Meraka Institute had concluded that the fire’s origin was the much-spurned lightning strike.

This has enormous legal ramifications. A smouldering fire, ignored for eight weeks by the fire departments, opens the way for insurance companies to launch class actions for negligence of up to R4 billion against the relevant municipalities and their fire departments. Insurers Santam, alone, face claims from fire victims totalling more than R700m.

Jean du Plessis has served “Section 3” notices on Knysna Municipality and Eden District Municipality of the Elandskraal community’s intention to institute a R21-million damages claim for the failure of their fire departments to extinguish the western fire and prevent it from spreading, re-igniting or becoming uncontrollable. (Section 3 of the Institution of Legal Proceedings Against Certain Organs of State Act requires notice of legal proceedings to be given within six months of an event or debt falling due).

After Du Plessis told Noseweek about the Meraka Institute’s investigation and its shock conclusion, there was apparently a dialogue between the attorney and the institute’s Philip Frost. An email arrived from Du Plessis explaining that Frost’s report had not been given to him; he was merely allowed to scan through a draft electronic copy on a CSIR computer in order to confirm that the information supplied to the CSIR scientists by Elandskraal residents was “used within context”.

“Whether the CSIR agrees with the views held by our clients is neither here nor there,” says a now back-pedalling Du Plessis. “We have other information which does not fall within the scope of expertise of the CSIR, which confirms our clients’ views that the so-called Knysna fire originated from the lightning strike which smouldered for weeks in Elandskraal.

“Having spoken to the CSIR recently, I would propose that you go as far as to indicate that the CSIR prepared a report which will probably go a long way to assist in confirming the origin of the Knysna fire, whichever theory it then confirms, if any.

“I do however confirm that our clients are confident, given the information they have, that the fire which smouldered in Elandskraal for weeks, is the fire that burnt down the Elandskraal community and most probably from there spread to Knysna.”

Noseweek then put the question to the Meraka Institute’s Dr Philip Frost: “As I understand it, you have concluded that the origin of the western fire was a smouldering fire caused by a lightning strike?” The CSIR’s senior scientist replied: “Well, we’re not allowed to say that yet because we haven’t released the official report. That will happen in early January. We’ll have a press briefing. There’s going to be an official report so then you will be able to see all the gory details. I’ve been specifically told not to make any disclosures before we do an official press briefing.”

Frost added: “We’ve disclosed certain things to the provincial disaster management group, but that was also in confidence. It’s an internal matter at this point. You know about the sensitivities. I’m a scientist and it’s not because I don’t want people to know what’s going on. But it’s become quite a big issue and we’ve been dragged into this thing from the get-go in the wrong way and I’ve had to write reports to look into what was really going on.”

So just what was the CSIR’s involvement in the Knysna fire chief’s “scientific” investigation? “There was a meeting,” says Frost. “We helped Mr Manuel to identify the location of where the drone footage was, to confirm that there was a drone that flew over an area where there was a smouldering patch. That was our only contribution to his report.

“We weren’t even aware of the drone imagery. Manuel showed us a drone image and we helped to identify the location of the footage by comparing it to satellite information. At that point we had no information about anything that was going on. Only subsequent to Manuel’s findings did we do a full analysis which included satellite information, drone information, weather information. That’s what we produced for our report.”

Philip Frost then revealed: “There’s a lot of new information that’s come to light which was not available when Manuel did his report.”

Was the CSIR annoyed at its name being misused by Chetty and Manuel at the August 14 media briefing?

“No,” says Frost, “I think it was just the context that needed to be set right, what we contributed, which was not clear. But we weren’t annoyed. It was just a case of making clear what our contribution was.

“We look at satellite information and from that point do an analysis. But we are not forensic experts. Show me a pine cone and I cannot comment on that. We have never commented on that part. We have contributed spatial information (data with direct or indirect reference to a specific location or geographical area).

“There was never an endorsement, an official endorsement, from the CSIR. It will come out in the press briefing what our specific contribution is and was. And hopefully – we don’t know, but maybe – it will even be a joint press briefing with Knysna Municipality. There are a lot of internal meetings that still need to take place.”

Drone image of the smouldering fire (note the surface burn mark) sent to the municipality on May 27, 11 days before the Great Fire of June 7.

Knysna’s municipal manager Kam Chetty, 58, was appointed Knysna’s municipal manager last July, a month after the Great Fire. He was previously with Oudtshoorn Municipality, where he was appointed administrator in 2015 to restore proper governance and a turnaround strategy in the town struck by financial and infrastructure crisis.

Clinton Manuel, who started his career as a fire fighter in Cape Town in 1988, was appointed fire chief in Knysna three years ago and as such was in charge of the Knysna joint operations centre throughout the Great Fire. In a rundown of Manuel’s career, Chetty said the fire chief had been involved in a number of major forensic fire investigations in the Cape. “All have gone unchallenged or, where they were challenged, his version was sustainable,” said Chetty. “So his conclusions have been verified and stood the test of a lot of interrogation and we have utmost confidence in his professional ability.”

Chetty said the municipality desperately needed the media’s assistance to dispel “myths” flooding social media on the cause of the fire (inspired by Dr Wallace Vosloo’s reported lightning-strike theory).

In his PowerPoint presentation, fire chief Manuel made much of the presence of pine cones that he said acted as a firelighter for whoever lit the fire in the Elandskraal forest clearing. This he considered to be vital evidence of a man-made fire, since he said there were no pine trees in the area.

In his written report Manuel concludes: “The pine cone with stacked heavy fuel is the most probable cause of this devastating fire. There exists no other explanation for this fuel to be stacked in this way, other than someone lighting a fire in that clearing in the early hours of 7 June or late evening of 6 June 2017. This fire becomes a new fire which is above ground and exposed to the wind. It had all the dry fuel in its path to quickly become a runaway fire.”

The Elandskraal community’s attorney Jean du Plessis comments: “I’ve spoken to a lot of fire experts and I don’t think anybody is really convinced about the pine-cone theory.

That farm used to be an old pine plantation and there’s still the odd pine there. I know there are pine cones there because we sent people to walk around there and have a look.”

• Why, readers may ask, has the CSIR been holding back publication of the secret report of its Meraka Institute into the Great Fire, with its conclusion by senior scientist Dr Philip Frost, that its cause was an underground fire that was ignited by lightning and left smouldering for eight weeks?

A neglected smouldering fire opens the door to what the Knysna council is desperate to avoid – massive damages claims against the municipality and its fire department. But as Noseweek’s report states, the law dictates that notice of any litigation must be served within six months.

In the case of the Great Fire, the deadline was December 6. Was the CSIR, which according to Frost gave advance sight of its confidential findings to the provincial disaster management group, prevailed upon to hold back the release of its devastating report until the December deadline had safely passed? – Ed.