Finding ways to fight shack fires before they begin

Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith says the City will aggressively publicise the 107 emergency number in the hope of speeding up firefighters’ response times to fires.

It takes less than a minute and 30 seconds for a fire to spread inside a shack, and most times it spreads beyond five shacks before City fire services get to the scene because of the cramped conditions in squatter camps.

This problem of reaching fires in Cape Town’s congested shanty towns was discussed by firefighters, disaster-management experts and scientists during a City of Cape Town webinar on how to reduce the risk of fire in these settlements.

During the virtual presentation, held on Wednesday October 13, International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, City fire chief Ian Schnetler played a video of a shack fire. The fire started slowly but spread quickly, engulfing clothes and furniture in less than a minute.

On average, a fire spread around a shack in a minute and 30 seconds, he said. He briefly mentioned a Wallacedene fire that destroyed several shacks on Monday October 11.

Mark Pluke, area head of the City’s disaster risk management centre, said rapid urbanisation had pushed people to inhabit unsafe buildings, and political parties used people to push for dangerously built informal settlements.

Ongoing land grabs in parts of the city had made re-blocking efforts – essentially rebuilding shacks with fire-retardant materials and re-arranging them to create more space between them – seem minuscule, he said.

Supplying fire extinguishers to families and using fire-safety products such as candle holders and fire-repellent paint were possible solutions, but they depended on funding, he said.

Fire incidents in Cape Town’s informal settlements had risen from 1 156 in 2009 to 1 467 in 2021, said Dr Robyn Pharoah, of Stellenbosch University’s Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADRR).

Many of the proposed solutions were expensive and not always easy to carry out, she said.

“What we know less about is what people do during a fire and what some of the issues are to getting people to safety.”

The university is piloting a fire-intervention programme in Wallacedene, installing alarms in shacks and surveying some 1200 residents in Wallacedene’s Temporary Relocation Area.

“Just over half (of the residents) felt it was very difficult to escape in the event of a fire. They say when a fire breaks out, it happens incredibly quickly,” Dr Pharaoh said.

According to her, some of those surveyed said furniture, burglar bars and padlocks hampered an escape from a fire. Others said they had improvised by deliberately weakening a section of their shack so it could be kicked clear in an emergency.

One in four people surveyed did not know who to phone or what to do in the event of a fire, she said. Over a third would call the police and 20% called the 112 emergency number.

Responding to a question from the audience about which emergency number the public should use, mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said the CIty would aggressively publicise the 107 emergency number.