Understanding The Wildfire Puzzle of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay

Knysna Fires
Knysna Fires

The Knysna and Plettenberg Bay Fires of 2017 are a landmark incident in the history of wildfire in South Africa. If we don’t want to experience similar disasters in the future, we need this incident to be transformative with an outcome of real change and collaboration in the approach of how we view and manage wildfire risk reduction and how, collectively, we approach dealing with this risk.

We live in a fire driven ecosystem where the occurrence of wildfire is inevitable. Wildfire suppression is only a small component of a much larger and more comprehensive strategy which is required to prevent disasters in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).

Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are not dissimilar to many other existing communities in the urban and rural landscape that have the very real potential for a similar type of wildfire disaster to occur. The simple analogy of a puzzle can be used to explain the current approach to wildfires. Imagine a puzzle made up of 10 pieces which can only fit together when placed in a specific order from piece 1 to piece 10.

Our current approach to solving this puzzle is hampered with us having become solely focussed on pieces 10, 9 and 8. Because of our focus on these pieces, the final pieces from 1 to 7 seem to have been forgotten.

Pieces 10, 9 and 8 very simplistically represent suppression services, limited fuel reduction strategies and limited wildfire planning – if we can just fit these three pieces together, we have it solved. In reality, like the puzzle, we are only 30% ready for wildfire and as a result there are major gaps and fundamentals in risk reduction missing.

If you analyse fire suppression efforts and the budget spent on operations during the most destructive phase of the recent fires, and the resultant damage that occurred, it can be argued that these efforts were mostly unsuccessful.

This is not from a lack of effort and dedication shown by fire services, but rather due to extreme fire behaviour and a rate of spread which rendered the fire uncontrollable. Where there is continuous dry vegetation, and the fire is fanned by a strong wind, it can reach an intensity and severity where suppression efforts are simply not possible.

New role-players to be brought to the table must be the homeowners, who need to reduce the vulnerability of their homes to ignition. There needs to be a strategic plan put in place and implemented by Land Management Agencies, Fire Services, Local Government, Homeowners and the Insurance Industry. If this does not happen and we continue only to rely and primarily focus on suppression activities, and limited wildland fuel treatments, fire disasters will continue to occur.

A home’s characteristics in relation to its immediate surroundings principally determine home ignition potential during extreme wildfires. Only focusing on wildland vegetation management without consideration and mitigation of home ignition vulnerability is exposing homes to severe risk.

Our primary strategy must be the creation of Fire Resilient Communities and the understanding of the wildfire. Prescribed fuel reduction burning and selectively allowing wildfires to burn when conditions are favourable would be such a strategy to keep fuel loads manageable, as well as reduce the continuity of fuels over large areas.

An appropriate application of a wildfire risk management strategy needs to be holistic and consider the functional relationships between extreme-weather wildfires, landscape conditions, and home ignition/destruction.

In response to recent wildfires in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, the Western Cape Disaster Management Fire and Rescue Services have requested Vulcan Wildfire Management to conduct a strategic analysis of the incident.