The Knysna Fires of 2017: Learning from this Disaster

The Partners based at Stellenbosch University South Africa, in collaboration with Santam and the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), have just released their research report on the 2017 Knysna Wildfires that devasted parts of the Southern Cape region of South Africa.

The Knysna fires were arguably the worst wildfire disaster in South Africa’s history. The social and economic impacts will be felt by Knysna and its inhabitants for years to come. It is critical that those responsible for fire management in rural and urban environments, as well as citizens, learn from this experience and become far better prepared to deal with wildfires in the future. Wildfires will continue to occur but there is a lot that can and must be done to avoid further disasters of this magnitude. 

The Knysna fires were a perfect storm. A range of meteorological, bio-physical and institutional factors came together to create the disaster. But the underlying risk drivers are replicated throughout the Western Cape, and in other provinces, creating the potential for similar wildfires elsewhere - as evidenced by extensive wildfires in Hessequa, Mossel Bay, George and Knysna Municipalities in November 2018 and the Overberg in January 2019. The purpose of this report is to identify the lessons and how they can be applied to reduce risk and strengthen preparedness for future fires when they occur. The focus is on the Knysna Fires, but the findings are applicable to the Southern Cape and to many other places in South Africa that experience wildfires in their natural vegetation (CSIR 2019).

These lessons need to be shared with key decision-makers and stakeholder groups so that they can address the factors that have led to the current situation. The Knysna Fires Learning Forum, convened by Santam, is one way of facilitating information-sharing, fruitful discussions and plans and actions aimed at translating the lessons learnt through these fires into more effective management of fire risk. Hopefully this study will give birth to more fire learning forums.
 
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