The final report of the commission of inquiry into the fire that raged through the Pretoriuskop area of the Kruger National Park (KNP) on September 4, 2001, killing 23 people and injuring 11 others, has been released. The report found that the fire was started by a person or persons unknown, in the area close to the loop road by Napi boulders.
The experimental burning carried out at the Pretoriuskop burn plots on the same day was ruled out as a source of ignition of the fire. The experimental burn did, however, contribute to the confusion when it came to fighting the fire as there was initially some assumption that the smoke seen was from the burn plot fire as opposed to a veld fire.
Other findings of the commission included the fact that the day the fire occurred was rated as the worst day in the preceding ten years in terms of high fire danger conditions that would lead to runaway veld fires. This is because the weather fluctuated considerably as a cold front moved over the park, with fluctuating temperature and humidity.
Winds varied in speed from still conditions to almost gale force conditions, with winds of up to 50km/hr. The prevailing wind direction also switched during the course of the fire, confounding firefighting efforts. Coming after the exceptionally high rainfall of 2000, there was also more grass than average standing in the veld at the time of the fire, which assisted the runaway fire.
The thatch cutters who died in the fire were in the heart of an area where the grass had been especially lush It was found that the area where they were camped had not been cleared in strict accordance with the park’s protocol for such operations. Thatch cutters from communities neighbouring the park have been harvesting grass in the park for the park’s 90,000m2 of thatched roofs for about 25 years.
The park’s fire-fighting equipment and fire-fighting training of its staff were also found to be lacking by the commission. The 106-page reported can be downloaded from the department of environmental affairs and tourisms’ website, www.environment.gov.za, in the hot issues section.