Report finds devastating Cape fire may have been a ‘malicious act’

An independent report has ruled out natural causes for the fire that raged on Cape Town’s Table Mountain National Park in April, scorching about 600 hectares of land. 

The fire started at the foot of the park and blazed for three days — fuelled by warm temperatures and strong winds — before being contained. The fire gutted the University of Cape Town’s African Studies Library and damaged or destroyed several other properties. Five firefighters were injured.

According to South African National Parks (SANParks), which commissioned the report, the findings also rule out negligence as a possible cause. This means the devastating fire was probably not caused by a homeless person, as was initially alleged.

In a statement announcing the report’s findings, SANParks acting chief executive Luthando Dziba said the report “provides compelling evidence suggesting that the fire may have been started as a malicious act”. 

The evidence in the report is being investigated by law enforcement, Dziba said.

Table Mountain National Park authorities initially said it was believed the fire originated from a vagrant’s fire that spread, fuelled by temperatures of more than 30°C, debris and old pine trees.

On the same day the fire started, the police arrested a man on charges of arson. It was believed the man set a separate fire in the vicinity of Devil’s Peak. This caused crucial fire-fighting resources, which were being used to battle the initial fire, to be sent to the area. But there is currently no link between the fires.

According to the report, which was compiled by an investigator at Enviro Wildfire, extremely low humidity coupled with strong winds caused embers in the smoke to land outside the burn area, where they ignited the surrounding veld. The dry vegetation and wind caused the fire to spread rapidly over a wide front.

“The primary reason for loss being suffered from this fire event was due to windblown embers landing on dry fuels … that set them alight, resulting in buildings catching on fire.”

The damage to the university’s buildings was probably fueled by the pine trees on the campus, the report noted. The pine trees have heritage status, which has prevented their removal.

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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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