Knysna fire: CSIR report confirms we got it right

Fire Chief Manuel’s pine-cone theory bites the dust.

Vosloo, whose own report was the first to link the western conflagration with the much earlier lightning strike, explained he had been given access to the CSIR’s final report “to check that the information we had input was accurately reflected and understood”. He added: “The CSIR team devoted a huge amount of time and resources to the project, down to buying timed international satellite picture footage – down to 18-inch resolution – which clearly shows where the fire started and how it spread. They have done an excellent job.”
Meanwhile, Clinton Manuel, Knysna’s chief fire officer who still punts his pine cone theory, has quietly resigned and left the town to take up a training position with the Cape Town fire service.

Former Knysna fire chief Clinton Manuel

Our original source for the CSIR’s smouldering fire conclusion was Jean du Plessis, a Pretoria attorney, who told us that he had been shown a draft electronic copy of the scientists’ report. Forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow, commissioned by AfriForum to make an independent investigation, came to the same finding: it was the smouldering fire.

As Knysna municipality prepared to unveil a sculpture in Knysna last month to pay tribute to those who lost their lives, homes and possessions in the tragedy, down in Cape Town Clinton Manuel was settling into his new job at the Fire Training Academy. 

The new head of training started off our chat with a disastrously-timed claim: of the fabled CSIR report by Dr Philip Frost of the Meraka Institute, Manuel declared: “Nobody that seen it – because it doesn’t exist!”

Well, we countered, Dr Frost did give us a long telephone interview (on 1 December 2017) in which he said his report was complete and its release imminent. Manuel snorted and made it clear that in his view that Noseweek interview (conducted by this writer) was a work of fiction. “When I spoke to Philip Frost he said they had a totally different outcome, which I am not at liberty to discuss with you,” said the fire chief.

So he stands by his theory that the western fire was started with a pine-cone? “Unfortunately, I have to,” said Manuel. “My reason: I’ve done a very, very thorough investigation. Noseweek has published an article and made the chief fire officer (himself) look like a complete nincompoop. But that’s OK, because I’m not here to prove to Noseweek or your readers that what I’ve done, or what David Klatzow has done, is right or wrong.

“Other than to tell you this: I’ve followed a very strict process that concerns fire investigation: I visited the scenes, took photographs, walked that scene for four days on the ground. Klatzow went and took the accusation of Vosloo and he failed to look at any other origins. And that’s wrong, where the fire investigator does it that way, when somebody goes and takes an allegation and doesn’t read the fire scene and doesn’t read the pattern of the fire spread.”

Manuel continued: “Klatzow did not consider the other possibilities. In fact he was never ever on the ground. He didn’t even look at the smouldering fire – and the smouldering fire was still there after the fire happened. He only looked at the Vosloo allegation.

“The CSIR never interviewed me, never asked me to accompany them to where the origin of the fire was. Nobody disputed there was a lightning strike. The issue in dispute was: did it spark the fire?

“The CSIR report is of no interest to me. If Philip Frost has a report he must publish it. I’ve published my findings and I’m quite comfortable, looking at the different possibilities, that I’ve given the more detailed probable cause of the fire than anybody else has done.”

From his comments and accusations, it seems that Clinton Manuel was:
• Accusing Noseweek of manufacturing fake news by inventing an interview with Dr Philip Frost which never took place, or in which Dr Frost was seriously misquoted.
• Accusing attorney Jean du Plessis of never having seen Frost’s draft report, or distorted its contents.
• Accusing Dr David Klatzow of making a lazy, incompetent and inaccurate report for AfriForum.

Dr Klatzow’s response: “I am not interested in a slanging match with the former fire chief. I am confident the final CSIR report will exonerate my findings.”

[Jack Lundin’s working transcript of his recorded telephone interview with the CSIR’s Dr Philip Frost, which fire chief Clinton Manuel believes was invented, may be read in full here. – Ed.]

So what, officially, has the CSIR had to say about its long overdue and extremely sensitive report on the cause of the Elandskraal fire? Five months ago, in January, David Mandaha, CSIR’s media manager, told Noseweek it “has not been finalised and is currently going through the necessary processes, including being peer reviewed by external reviewers. Once all that is done, the CSIR will release the report.”

Mandaha took great exception to my “Knysna fire smokescreen” jotting on our internet edition that month with its suggestions of a cover-up and that Philip Frost had been gagged by his superiors, who were busy preparing a sanitised version of his findings. “The CSIR further reiterates that the report will be released once all the processes have been finalised,” Mandaha said back then.

This April again we asked for a release date. “The report is currently under international peer review process and no date or time-line has been set for its release,” was the CSIR’s reply.

We fired off another request: Which individuals and scientific bodies were doing the international peer review? No response.

In the meantime, Jean du Plessis, the Pretoria attorney who told Noseweek he’d been shown Frost’s draft report, has served “Section 3” notices (of intention to sue an organ of state) on Knysna Municipality and Eden District Council. Du Plessis is looking for R21m damages on behalf of the Elandskraal community for the authorities’ failure to extinguish the western fire.

And the insurance companies have been counting the cost. Old Mutual Insure tells us they’ve paid out “in excess of R600m”. Santam says they received 767 claims totalling R823m; Outsurance more than 1000 claims totalling R150m. Hollard failed to give us a figure, but previously admitted to claims of R260m.

That’s R1.8bn in claims to just four insurers. Of these, only Old Mutual Insure admits to serving Section 3s while it “assesses its position”.

How many Section 3 notices has Knysna Municipality received?  “The matter has been referred to the municipality’s insurer,” says a spokesperson. “At this stage we are unable to make any media statements until our insurers have completed their investigations.”

Until a new fire chief is appointed, Wayne Sternsdorf, station commander at Sedgefield, is acting fire chief at Knysna. It was Sternsdorf who attended the Elandskraal smouldering fire on April 12, eight weeks before the runaway conflagration. He told a resident that the smoulder was in an inaccessible area, gave him contact details for the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association and told him to build a firebreak.

Where are they now?

As new head of training for Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service, Manuel’s brief covers 1,300 staff members in 30 fire stations.

A fire-fighter for 30 years, Manuel comes from Cape Town and his passion has always been staff training. In Knysna his role was an operational one. “I’m not going to say that I never enjoyed it,” he says carefully. “It had its own challenges.

“When I went there the fire service was under-resourced and the staff never had any training. About 71% of them didn’t have the minimum requirement of Firefighter 1. When I left, 100% of them were trained. They never had the latest equipment. Now they’ve got a new fire engine that I had refurbished. It’s about taking your expertise, your knowledge, and adding value to a small organisation. In that sense I’m quite pleased. I added value.”

Was it the Great Fire of last June, and the controversy it has provoked, that caused him to leave Knysna? “No,” he replies.” My family (he has a wife and two children) never relocated with me to Knysna. That’s why I left (to rejoin them in Cape Town). I made the decision to leave even before the Knysna fire.”

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