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Forged in flame

Lessons from Cape Town’s fire

By Jen Stern

, |

Forged in flame

Lessons from Cape Town’s fire

By Jen Stern

, |

4 min read

What is the lesson we take home as we count the cost, and to try to reconstruct, after this last in a series of devastating fires? We need to think – not just about how we deal with the aftermath, or even how we deal with the actual fires – but how we prevent them from happening again. And, for those of us responsible for large tracts of land, like estates, it’s not just an academic exercise.

What really caused the Cape Town fire?

The jury is still out, but trial by media and social media has declared that the initial fire was (probably) started by a ‘vagrant’. Now, usually, that is not a word I would use either in speech or print, but I think it’s important to note that that is the word used in all the initial reports. It is a word with a lot of negative connotations and, in many countries, it denotes a crime. Britain, for instance, still has a Vagrancy Act, which dates back to 1824.

So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the fire was, in fact, started by a homeless person making a campfire on the mountain. What does that tell us about our society, and how it operates?

The chaos, the chaos …

In casual conversation we tend to use the word ‘chaos’ to mean total disorganisation or disaster, and many may well have used the word to describe the fire. But chaos, as a construct, is not at all disorganised. As Jung says: ‘In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order’ – and most physicists would agree. What this means, without getting too technical, is that the world is logical and ordered, and cause follows effect. But the world (or the universe) is also incredibly complex, and each effect is itself a cause that can have more than one effect, so it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict the cause-and-effect sequence of almost anything – the weather, the stock market, an election or, yes, a fire.

But the beauty of hindsight is that we can reverse engineer a sequence of events and, once having done so, see that the effect was almost inevitable – if not predictable. (If you struggle with the difference between those, think of COVID-19. Epidemiologists have been saying for decades that we are due for a major pandemic of the scale of 1918. ‘It’s not whether there will be a pandemic,’ many experts have been quoted as saying, ‘but when.’ And, of course, now we all see that that was true.)

So let’s think about the series of events that ‘caused’ and exacerbated the fire in Cape Town.

Why did the fire get out of hand?

A simple question with two very simple answers. The first and most accurate is: ‘we don’t really know,’ and the second is: ‘because of a series of events exacerbated by weather, time of day, time of week, funding mechanisms, management structures, and more.’ The Swiss Cheese model, which we discuss elsewhere on this site, describes how no risk management strategy is 100% foolproof. So – continuing with the cheese analogy – the ‘holes’ in Cape Town’s fire prevention and firefighting policy are similar to the holes in a slice of Emmentaler; as long as there are enough slices, the holes should not line up, and the strategy should work. Well, clearly, the holes lined up – or there were not enough pieces of cheese.

So one way of looking at this is that there were not enough layers in the city’s fire control strategy. This could address questions such as:

  • Why were the helicopters (or at least one helicopter) not called out when the fire was small and there was no wind?
  • Who is responsible for first response to fires on the mountain? SANParks? The City? Working on Fire? Volunteer Wildfire Services?
  • Why were the pine trees not removed from the mountain?

But there is another, more fundamental, question: What was the ultimate cause of the fire? Until proven otherwise, the general belief is that the ‘cause’ of the fire was a homeless person starting a campfire. And the cause of that is the high level of homelessness in Cape Town – and the rest of the country. And the cause of that …

Well, we could carry on for ever, and it’s unlikely we will solve the homelessness crisis overnight. But, when we look far back enough at the sequence of events, we start to realise that homelessness really does affect all of us, no matter how ‘secure’ our homes appear to be, especially when we look at how the fire spread.

The perfect storm

It was all there:

  • a hot, dry day at the end of summer
  • lots of dry vegetation
  • explosively flammable alien pines
  • Rhodes Memorial restaurant with its beautiful thatched roof and catering quality gas stove (and cylinders)
  • strong wind.

All it took was one spark (probably from a burning pine tree) to ignite the thatched roof of the restaurant – and then the gas bottles to blow up in a spectacular BLEVE (Boiling-Liquid Expanding-Vapour Explosion – pronounced ‘blevvy’), and it was as if all hell had broken out. And then just one, teensy weensy little spark to fly on a gust of wind – light as a fairy – onto the roof of the library at UCT, and another to float across the highway onto another thatched roof. Looked at with the clarity of hindsight, it almost seems like a series of inevitable events – a spiral fractal of flames, sparks, soot, ash and bits of burning thatch fed and created by a rising plume of heat. Not chaotic at all – just too complex to predict.

What does that mean for estates?

As residents and management of estates, we need to realise that our high walls, our CCTV cameras, our off-site monitoring, our dedicated patrols and our access control can only protect us from some risks – and fire is not one of them. There is, for example, one estate in Cape Town that is separated from a highly fire-prone informal settlement by no more than a strip of dry reeds a few hundred metres wide. So, as communities and individuals, we need to assess and manage risk in a creative way, creating as many safeguards (or slices of cheese) as possible, and we need to consider a holistic approach to development by thinking beyond the wall.

So what can we learn from the fire?

The take-home lessons from this – and many other disasters are:

  • the world is far more complex than we imagine
  • we do not live in isolation – our lives and our wellbeing are intimately connected with those of everyone else on the planet
  • even small actions can have incredibly far-reaching consequences
  • and – most importantly – we don’t have the answers, but we need to keep asking the questions.

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