NEWS

There Are Suspicions The Devastating Cape Fires Were Started Deliberately

The fires are still burning in inaccessible mountain areas.

10/01/2017 12:22 SAST | Updated 10/01/2017 13:29 SAST
Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Firefighters spray embers to prevent a flare up of a bushfire that burnt several houses and threatened vineyards in Somerset West, near Cape Town, South Africa January 4, 2017.

Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen said on Monday that the devastating wildfires that had spread around Somerset West last week, stretching firefighting resources, destroying a luxury lodge and causing around R60 million damages, were started by people.

An investigation is under way to determine if they acted maliciously.

"As you are all aware, something that is very, very concerning to all of us [is that] most of the ignition sources, according to representation and information that I've received earlier on, clearly shows that these fires are mainly human," Van Rooyen said during a media briefing at the Strand fire station.

City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith agreed with Van Rooyen, saying that the city was investigating whether the fires were started intentionally.

"All fires are started by human activity, the issue is if it was started accidentally or is it started maliciously. So we are investigating," Smith said.

"Information has been forthcoming from two or three witnesses who observed things that they have communicated."

Urban edges not maintained

Meanwhile, the city's fire department head criticised farm owners, saying that urban edges were not maintained properly, which made it easier for fires to spread.

"[Poorly maintained urban edges] would be conducive [for] fire [to] spread more easily, so farm owners need to take responsibility for the land," Ian Schnetler said.

"If they really want to protect the land, they are required to maintain their land properly and, in terms of some of the areas we've been to, the land is not maintained properly," he said.

According to Smith, poorly maintained urban edges complicated firefighting efforts.

"It's a mixed bag. Some owners are very conscientious and, through the fire protection associations, have done good work. Others have been less proactive and that has complicated the firefighting efforts," Smith said.

Damages

Schnetler said that fires were still burning, but in areas that were inaccessible.

"[It] is burning high up in the peaks of the mountain on top of the Blue Gum forest, inaccessible to ground crews and inaccessible to flying aircraft at the moment because of the wind situation," he said.

Schentler confirmed that a saw mill had burnt down on the Lourensford wine farm on Friday.

According to Smith, the damage caused by the fires was currently at R54m.

"R54 million now, if you include the saw mills at Lourensford. All said and done, we will rest probably somewhere at about R60 million in damages and 10 hectares affected," Smith said.

He said the fires were the worst the city has seen in the past few years.

"The fires are way more severe than the fires in the Southern Peninsula a few years ago. These fires burnt down several more buildings and damaged a bigger area," he said.

Tougher legislation

According to Van Rooyen, legislation should be used to discourage people from starting fires.

"We [must] introduce extra punitive measures to ... discourage such practices," he said.

Van Rooyen said he would work together with the justice minister in creating legislation, but could not confirm when this would be finalised.

"We really need to work together with the justice cluster in confirming the severity of the matters that are being employed, to deal with those who start these fires, because we are losing a lot of money in this exercise," Van Rooyen said. -- News24