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Glowing mistakes

What lessons can developers learn from Knysna’s fires?

By Angelique Ruzicka

, |

Glowing mistakes

What lessons can developers learn from Knysna’s fires?

By Angelique Ruzicka

, |

3 min read

There’s a big demand from people to reconnect with nature and many are keen to leave the big city life and have homes build close to it. But being close to nature comes with its own perils.

From the Knysna fires to Cape Town’s infernos we look at the elements and conditions whereby fires are fawned and make recommendations on what developers could do about it.

A perfect storm

The Cape Town fires which damaged the iconic UCT buildings earlier this year were likely started by a malicious act after South African National Parks ruled out natural causes.

But not all wildfires are started through malicious acts in South Africa. Back in 2017, Knysna’s notorious fires destroyed 22,000 hectares of the Garden route. According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research the disaster was caused by a cocktail of factors including drought, low atmospheric humidity, strong winds and abundant fuel. The Knysna fires were the worst wildfire disaster in South Africa’s history.

But what can be learned from this tragedy and the collaborative research report conducted between Santam and the University of Stellenbosch and the CSIR that followed?

Embracing diversity

To prevent fires from raging out of control, one of the key points highlighted in the report was to ensure that the surrounding areas were not dominated by alien vegetation.

The report said: ‘Topography and dominant vegetation types, particularly invasive alien plats (IAPs) and commercial forests have high fuel loads and make the fires more intense and severe.’

The sloping effect

Many homeowners may insist on having a high vantage point to enjoy the landscape views but building homes on a slope poses an increased fire risk.

The report highlights: ‘Dwellings that were damaged or destroyed were concentrated in areas that were densely invaded with IAPs and commercial forests and many were located on slopes which increased the speed of fire spread.’

If there’s no choice but to build a home on a slope it’s important to increase the defensible space around the potentially at-risk homes.

Creating a defensible space

Fire resistant landscapes and materials are vital to protect against flames. While many like to build homes close to nature, the report noted that it was a mistake to build homes near trees or shrub vegetations.

The report explained: ‘Homes that have cleared space or short vegetation around them are much less likely to be damaged or destroyed.’

Non-combustible materials

According to insurer, Allianz, the use of non-combustible materials is vital to ensure more fire protection. Wood products such as boards, panels or shingles, they say are common siding materials but are combustible.

The report issued a similar warning saying that fire resistant materials were especially important for roofs. It adds: ‘Care must be taken with the selection and testing of roof cladding systems; some materials have been shown to be susceptible to fire and require additional protection.’

Collective responsibility

Questions have been raised in the past about the safety and compliance of South Africa’s high-rise buildings and of those around the world, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London.

These days, mixed use developments come in all shapes and sizes and the reality is that fires are not just a hazard when it comes to tall buildings.

While it’s true that fighting fires can be a collective responsibility, fire protection can start with developers using the correct materials, protecting a property’s structure through compartmentation that prevents fire spread as well as fitting the effective alarms and fixtures. If there are any areas of concern, it’s never too late to get a proper fire risk assessment done.

[KEY WORDS] Knysna fires; fire resistant material; cladding; etc

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