‘Knysna was not prepared’: Local firefighters not equipped for a blaze of this scale

The fires that have destroyed homes and businesses in Knysna and surrounds could easily have been brought under control.

That is the belief of firefighters across the country who have been roped in to help their Western Cape colleagues, who have been battling the blazes for nearly a week.

A Johannesburg firefighter, who asked not to be named, said that if the Knysna fire department had had sufficient resources and the right equipment the blaze could have been stopped earlier.

“What they have is equipment to extinguish veld fires – nothing more. Even the guys I am with are complaining. They are struggling because they don’t have the right equipment and these are guys who have more than 100 years of experience between them,” he said.

The firefighter said logistically the region had not been prepared for a fire of this magnitude, with strong winds hampering efforts to extinguish it.

Nearly 1200 firefighters are tackling the blaze.

Some of them are retired firefighters who volunteered.

Over the past six days the fires have destroyed millions of rands worth of homes and claimed the lives of at least seven people.

The question now is: Was Knysna prepared for a disaster of this magnitude?

Incident commander for Knysna Reinard Gildenhys said: “The scale and intensity [of the blaze], mixed with the drought and intense weather conditions, made it impossible to deal with the fire.”

He said once the Knysna fire team realised that they were not going to beat the fire on their own they called for reinforcements from neighbouring districts.

Richard Meyer, Knysna municipality’s disaster manager, said the town had struggled with drought.

“From 2009, we implemented water restrictions. This year they were raised. Our dam is currently at 31% capacity.”

Water-pipe leaks hampered fire-fighting efforts, he said.

Meyer said there had been plans to construct a dam in Knysna but they were abandoned because of the cost.

Knysna municipal spokesman Fran Kirsten said so far 408 structures in the town had been destroyed in the fire.

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