GARDEN ROUTE NEWS - The risk of "mega-fires" recurring in South Africa remains high. That is one of the findings of an independent report that was commissioned by short-term insurer, Santam.
The report was made public last Thursday, just a day before the commemoration of the ravaging fires in the Knysna area that started on 7 June 2017.
The report, The Knysna Fires of 2017: Learning form the disaster, makes a number of recommendations for government, communities, the insurance industry and other stakeholders towards minimising the risk of future "mega-fires". It also suggests remedial steps to be taken in reducing the social and financial impact of such disasters should they occur.
Santam commissioned the report from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (Radar) and the Fire Engineering Research Unit (FireSUN) at Stellenbosch university.
The fires in Knysna are described as the worst wildfire disaster in South African history. The report found that its severity was caused by a "cocktail" of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel.
John Melville, chief underwriting officer at Santam, said that unfortunately these conditions remain prevalent in many parts of South Africa.
He said while nothing can be done about conditions created by climate change, steps can be taken to reduce the frequency and magnitude of wildfires. According to the report, responders were remarkably successful in saving lives.
However, a critical factor mentioned in the report is that there were gaps in the training of the suppression of wildfires, incident command and evacuation, as well as in response planning.
The key recommendations include:
- Managing or controlling the presence of fire-prone vegetation and other combustible or flammable material on tracts of land usually referred to as fuel loads;
- Attending to all fire call-outs - even if they don't appear threatening;
- Greater focus on public education and awareness programmes on the risks associated with wildfires;
- The report urged the insurance industry to help build capacity of municipal fire services to deal with wildfire prevention and response; and
- Another key recommendation was that insurers develop more affordable insurance products for the so-called "missing middle", the households that are not sufficiently impoverished to be supported by government welfare but that cannot afford insurance.
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