Battling the Knysna blaze

He’s been a fireman for 30 years, but the inferno that swept through Knysna in the southern Cape two weeks ago, is the worst Clinton Manuel has seen in his career.

Mr Manuel, from Tygerdal in Goodwood, has been the fire chief of the tourist town for two and a half years, and he says when he moved there, he knew what he was getting himself in for.

“I knew that I would have to build the fire service up. But I was willing to do the work”.

Mr Manuel spoke to Northern News at the weekend while on a short visit to his family, who stayed behind when the career fireman took up the post in Knysna.

He is in charge of the fire station in Knysna and Sedgefield and a sub-station in Concordia.

He got the first call about a fire, which started in Kruisfontein at 2am that Wednesday, and was told about the second fire, in Elandskraal, home to mostly elderly and retired people, just after 6am.

“The only thing we could do was to evacuate. There was absolutely nothing we could do about this fire,” he said.

His house in Eastford, which he built a year after moving to Knysna, was untouched by the fire. “The house next to mine is gone,” he said.

Pictures on his cellphone show the extent of the devastation, which led to Knysna being declared a disaster area: brick houses reduced to rubble by temperatures of between 2000ºC to 3000ºC. The fire spread from Knysna to Plettenberg Bay, destroying 480 houses and 415 shacks. This fire, he said, was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, one that would no doubt become a case study in years to come.

While they know exactly where the fire started in a forestry station, the cause has not been determined yet.

“The elements lined up perfectly for this fire. The topography, the drought, fuel at the forestry station and the warm wind all added to it,” he said.

The fire spread on a thermal wave – something Mr Manuel has never seen.

“It presents a unique opportunity to investigate the science behind it,” he said.

“It’s a total new thing we experienced here. No fire service could be prepared for a fire like this.”

Mr Manuel said that with the help of a SANParks official he had kept abreast of the weather conditions, plotting where the wind would pick up and spread the flames.

This helped with deployment of firefighters and putting evacuation plans in action. At the height of the firefighting, he was in command of 1 200 firefighters, with 350 vehicles, five helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft.

“So many people came to help us,” he said. Many of them he knows from his years as a firefighter and lecturer at the City of Cape Town’s fire academy in Epping. Fire crews, including those from the City of Cape Town, Mossel Bay, the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), Working on Fire and volunteers travelled to Knysna to help battle the blaze.

Mr Manuel was the incident commander of a unified command along with Bitou Municipality, which covers the greater Plettenberg Bay area.

This meant going without sleep from that Wednesday morning to Saturday evening when he was relieved for a quick rest before heading back to the command centre that Sunday morning. “Save lives. That is what I had to do,” he said.

A WhatsApp from a colleague in Cape Town praises Mr Manuel for his composure during the crisis.

“Someone had to make the decisions and you have to stand by it,” he said.

Forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow had been appointed by AfriForum to investigate the cause of the blaze, Mr Manuel said.

Meanwhile the work of rebuilding Knysna is expected to take several years and billions of rands. Hundreds of people who have lost their homes are being housed in community halls and with friends and relatives.

“The challenge now is how to continue to manage this disaster. It’s not going to take a year to rebuild Knysna,” Mr Manuel said.

On Father’s Day (Sunday June 18) he headed back to Knysna early morning as duty called.