Sounding the alarm on shack fire losses

More than 1 100 homes were destroyed in the fire that raged through Masiphumelele informal settlement near Fish Hoek in Cape Town last month. The devastating blaze displaced 5 000 people. The fire was only one of the 177 to hit informal settlements in the city last year.

But the Cape Town blazes are only an indication of a much larger problem. According to the most recent countrywide statistics from the Fire Protection Association of Southern Africa (FPASA), there were 5 283 shack fires during the 2016-17 municipal reporting year. Households lost almost R180-million as a result of these fires.

Inadequate detection systems mean that these fires aren’t extinguished early enough to minimise damage, the FPASA noted.

This is where the Lumkani fire alarm comes in. The alarm comes with an insurance plan that is in the process of paying more than 100 claimants for what they lost in the Masiphumelele fire, says Lumkani co-founder David Gluckman.

The fire alarm, developed as part of a university thesis, works by detecting heat, rather than smoke. Gluckman says a smoke detector would not be appropriate in an informal settlement, because fire is already used for cooking or lighting homes.

Each device is connected to create a complex system of detection. This means that if a fire is detected in one home, other homes are alerted before they are hit by the blaze. Fires in informal settlements travel quickly between homes because of their proximity. 

A recent experiment by the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University showed that, even with light wind, once a blaze hit, 20 shacks could be ignited in five minutes.

“Early warning is really required to give as many people notice as soon as possible, so they can spring to action, save lives and save belongings,” Gluckman says of the Lumkani alarm.

Lumkani is not the only innovation aimed at preventing shack fires. In 2017, then 17-year-old Gabriella Mogale developed a material that can be used to fireproof shacks. She reportedly came up with the idea while watching television coverage of the wildfires that ravaged Knysna that year.

But, given the voracious nature of shack fires, even the best laid efforts to stop them from occurring, and spreading, may fail. The Stellenbosch University experiment found, for example, that fire-resistant paint would have had little effect on saving homes because of the intensity of these fires.

Taking this into account, Lumkani also seeks to create a financial safety net for its users. The alarm is distributed together with an insurance policy.

Gluckman says the idea to attach fire cover to the alarm arose because it wasn’t gaining traction as an alert system alone. 

“We wanted to see if there was more that we could offer our clients to attend to this challenge of shack fires, which is really that people lose all they have in a single moment,” he said. 

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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