Knysna suffers the fury of fire

by ShevonaJune 12, 2017

Minutes before Madré Johnston and her husband Tony burnt to death outside their home in Elandskraal near Knysna, she sent a final text message to her neighbours saying that she could see a “glow” approaching. Madré was eight months pregnant. That afternoon, they would have celebrated their son Michael’s third birthday. “Morning,” she greeted her neighbour Anton du Plessis by WhatsApp. “We can see a red glow approaching from Uschi’s side, this morning. Looks as if the fire is burning. It’s still too dark to see the full extent. Will let you know as soon as we can see.” Uschi Schultz was one of the couple’s neighbours. Du Plessis said that about 20 minutes later, at about 06:35, the flames were at his house. When he had earlier received Johnston’s message, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. The power was off and the wind was blowing at storm force. He and his wife Anita fled for their lives.

“My house started burning. I saw Judgement Day. Coals of fire were raining down from the heavens. I was ready to die. Anita grabbed our dogs, Mojo, Cola and Nika, and I grabbed my passport, wallet and [medical documents]. “We just managed to get to the Land Rover when burning trees started falling down around us. We just raced through the fire,” he said. Du Plessis said the flames were not close to the ground. “They were carried by storm winds. We were waiting on rain from Cape Town but then it rained fire. The whole Garden Route is burnt down.” He said after the flames had passed over his farm he went to his neighbours, where he came across their corpses.

“The scene looks apocalyptic”

Tony and Madré were both engineers. They were found near their vehicles, probably overcome by the flames while trying to flee. Tony was lying on top of his wife and child. Du Plessis said his house and his life’s work had been destroyed. “[Our other neighbours] have seven children, their house is burnt down. The workers’ homes – gone. The scene looks apocalyptic.” Knysna’s municipal manager, Johnny Douglas, said the fire department was never equipped for such an “extraordinary fire”. He said that for a long time, they have been in need of a tanker and high-pressure “spray vehicles” that can fight fires that move at 100km/h. Douglas said the fire was stoked by the same winds that caused havoc on the Cape Peninsula on Tuesday. The only difference was that the same winds did not bring rain, but were paired with warm berg wind conditions.

Knysna’s fire chief, Clinton Manuel, said the town was imperiled by fire on two fronts and there was no way of stopping them. The fire from the west had also split and burnt on both sides of the Knysna lagoon. “We tackled it with everything that Knysna had. We are a small fire department and couldn’t handle the spread of the fire. “Even if I had the fire services of the entire city of Cape Town, with all of its resources, nobody would have been able to stop this fire.” Manuel said that at one stage, the fire was moving a kilometre every 10 minutes. And the blaze, initially only in the treetops, was so hot that buildings and trees 300m ahead of the inferno started burning. “That is why we began to evacuate large parts of the town; we knew we would not be able to stop it.” Knysna municipal spokesperson Fran Kirsten said yesterday that about 160 houses in the town had been destroyed, but a final estimate of the damage would only be possible once all the fires had been extinguished. The fires killed five people this week, including Knysna resident Dawie van der Ryst, who suffered a heart attack when he and his wife tried to flee their home.

Bradley Richards, a volunteer firefighter, died as a result of burn wounds he sustained fighting the blaze.


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