An elaborate cover-up is under way following Noseweek’s revelation of the findings of a secret report by a senior scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute, which confirms that a major portion of the Great Fire of Knysna was allowed to smoulder for eight weeks before it ran rogue to devastate the West Coast tourist town last June. This conflicts with the finding of Knysna’s fire chief Clinton Manuel, whose own report, claimed to be driven by “proper scientific methodology”, found that the fire was started by an unknown person using a pine-cone as a fire lighter.
|From LandWater’s report: Sentinel-2 satellite image of fire across Elandskraal at 10:10 am 7 June 2017.|
The dispute over the origin of what is known as the western fire, which started in the forests of Elandskraal, north-west of Knysna, has exploded into political and legal dynamite. If the Meraka Institute’s findings are correct, Knysna and Eden’s municipalities and their fire departments could be liable for negligence claims running into billions. And Clinton Manuel’s reputation would be in tatters.
As reported in our January issue (nose219) an independent probe conducted for AfriForum by forensic investigator Dr David Klatzow, has also concluded that the western fire was caused by a long-smouldering underground fire following a lightning strike last April 12.
Dr Philip Frost, the senior scientist at the CSIR who authored the secret report, heads the Earth Observation Applications group at the parastatal’s prestigious Meraka Institute. Using polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, the group’s Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS) provides fire managers across the globe with information about wildfires, including the early detection of lightning-caused fires.
Frost told Noseweek that he wanted his findings made public, but it seems he has been gagged by his superiors at the CSIR, who are busy preparing a sanitised version of the controversial findings. On January 18 the Knysna Herald reported that CSIR spokesperson Tendani Tsedu told them that “due diligence” was still to be done before the report was ready for release.
But, as reported in nose219, Philip Frost’s report was complete and ready for publication at the beginning of December! Frost told us it would have been released then “had it not been with everybody going on leave in two weeks time”. The official press release, he said, would therefore be “early January”.
At Knysna municipality’s press briefing last August 14 municipal manager Kam Chetty and Knysna fire chief Clinton Manuel both emphasised the importance of input from the CSIR and the “proper scientific methodology” that had brought Manuel to his pine-cone theory. But was that just to give weight to Manuel’s bizarre theory and steer suspicion away from the long-smouldering fire caused by the lightning strike – and any suggestion of negligence by Manuel’s fire department that might draw costly lawsuits against the municipality?
As reported in our last issue, Meraka’s Philip Frost told us on December 1: “We helped Mr Manuel to identify the location of where the drone footage was, to confirm that there was a drone that flew over an area where there was a smouldering patch. He showed us a drone image and we helped to identify the location of the footage by comparing it to satellite information. That was our only contribution.
“Only subsequent to his findings [the pine-cone theory] did (we do) a full analysis which included satellite information, drone information, weather information. That’s what we produced for our report now, and since his report there’s a lot of new information that’s come to light.”
Was the CSIR annoyed at having its name taken in vain, and so inaccurately, at the Knysna Municipality’s August 14 presentation of Manuel’s report?
Frost: “There was never an endorsement, an official endorsement from the CSIR. But we weren’t annoyed. It was just a case of making it clear what was our contribution, because we are not forensic experts. We look at satellite information and from that point do an analysis, but we are not forensic experts. I cannot comment on a pine-cone and we have never commented on that part. We have contributed towards spatial information [data with direct or indirect reference to a specific location or geographical area]. It’s just the context which was maybe not made clear.”
As also reported in our January issue, Pretoria attorney Jean du Plessis, who represents a group of Elandskraal residents who lost their homes in the Great Fire, told us that he had been shown a draft electronic copy of Frost’s report on a CSIR computer in order to confirm that information given to the CSIR by his clients was “used within context”. Du Plessis confirmed that Frost’s conclusion was that the smouldering underground fire was the origin of the devastating western fire. He said he remembered a lot more detail from the scientist’s report, but declined to elaborate.
We reported that the attorney has served notices on Knysna Municipality and Eden District Municipality of his clients’ intention to launch a R21m damages claim for the failure of the authorities’ fire departments to extinguish the western fire and preventing it from spreading, re-igniting or becoming uncontrollable.
So what did Clinton Manuel’s fire department do between the lightning strike on April 12 and the runaway conflagration of June 7? The fire chief’s own report states that on April 30 Wayne Sternsdorf, station commander at Sedgefield field station, received a report of a smoulder from an Elandskraal resident. A crew attended at 15.36 and Sternsdorf climbed a ladder against a farm building to look at the distant smoke. He told the resident it was in an inaccessible area, gave him contact details for the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association and told him to build a fire break.
On May 27 Sternsdorf received a WhatsApp from another resident with drone footage of the smoulder, stating: “We’ve had this every day for last four weeks.”
On May 31, another WhatsApp from the same resident: “Went to check this out. No squatters or signs of people. Looks like an underground smouldering burn. Area is completely burned and perimeter is still smouldering and moving. Very dense bush with no mobile access.”
No action was taken. Dirk Smith of Southern Cape Fire Protection Association received an (undated) call about the smoulder from someone whose name he could not recall. Smith did not attend, but offered two expensive options the residents could take: water bomb the area with a helicopter [helicopter hire for this costs R35,000/hour], or have ground crews cut a path and try to extinguish the smoulder using hand tools. Manuel’s report states that Smith heard no more and “thought the matter had been dealt with”.
The environmental Facebook page LandWater has also blasted fire chief Clinton Manuel’s man-made explanation of the cause of the fire. In a detailed technical post last October 21 (Elandskraal; When a Fire Report Fails) – its findings are likely to be mirrored in the CSIR’s secret report – the well-regarded watchdog ripped Manuel’s findings to shreds, concluding:
“The wind modelling and fire simulation fails in totality. The modelling and simulations’ timing is wrong. The veldfire’s start time is wrong. Data has been applied in erroneous and unscientific ways. Wind periods have been interpreted wrongly and extended in error. Wrong wind speeds have been used. Significant and material errors have been made on the wind directions. Distances covered don't make sense within the timing. The gaps in spread can't be covered. The simulation is broken from the start. The lightning fire's simulation is broken.”
LandWater’s verdict: “The location of the source of fire offered is wrong. By inference, only the natural (smouldering) fire continues to stand as the clear and only source of fire at Elandskraal.”
LandWater’s suggestion to the reputedly arrogant and obstinate fire chief Clinton Manuel: “Never release (present or publish) a report externally, based on an internal investigation or study, without first allowing an assessment by an independent reviewer with expert knowledge and experience, even if you believe you’re an expert yourself. When working with data that forms part of an important investigation/piece of research, always ensure that a true data expert handles all aspects of the data, especially data that deserves to be scrutinised.”
Most importantly, LandWater observes: “A striking theme is consistently maintained, where the potential destructive impact of the smouldering natural fire at Elandskraal is being downplayed. Why?
“This happened during the initial presentation (by Knysna Municipality last August), in the eventual (Manuel) report itself and during interaction with the press. The press have also failed in their oversight role – everything presented to them seemingly went unchallenged.”
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