Object thrown from car started UCT fire, investigation concludes

24 June 2021 - 11:15 By bobby jordan
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The mountain fire that ravaged the University of Cape Town in April was probably caused by arsonists who threw or shot something out of a passing car.

That’s the conclusion of an investigative report made public on Thursday by South African National Parks.

CCTV camera footage showed a car moving slowly along the shoulder of a freeway immediately adjoining the area where smoke was first detected on the morning of April 18, the report said.

The car pulled away just minutes before the smoke was reported to response teams.

Though the make and model of the car is known, the footage does not identify its registration number. SANParks is offering a reward for information that could lead to arrests.

“Yes we do believe that an object was thrown from the car,” said lead fire investigator Rob Erasmus, who presented the report at a press briefing at SANParks headquarters in Tokai.

“At this stage we cannot divulge the distance that it was thrown,” he said, adding that the investigation team was experimenting with various objects to see how ignition could have occurred.

“At this stage our conclusion is that the fire was set with intent,” Erasmus said.

Wildfire investigator Rob Erasmus.
Wildfire investigator Rob Erasmus.
Image: Supplied

The fire caused extensive damage to property at UCT and adjoining areas. It destroyed rare archival material in the university library and reduced to ruins two heritage buildings – Rhodes Memorial restaurant and Mostert’s Mill. 

It also damaged several other properties and hundreds of hectares of mountainside.

Fire-fighting measures, including helicopters, cost taxpayers around R1.3m.

The SANParks report also clarified the sequence of events on the day of the fire, which was marked by extremely dry and windy conditions.

The "UCT fire" was one of multiple fires that started on that day, the first at around 8.45am and three others in the evening closer to the central business district.

The evening fires were also started intentionally and a suspect had been apprehended and charged, Erasmus said. “People were seen on the mountain lighting the (evening) fires,” he said. “The investigation is ongoing.”

Erasmus said evidence collected by his team had allowed them to exclude various causes of the UCT fire, notably a theory that it had originated from a vagrant fire. 

Natural causes, such as lightning or a rockfall, had also been eliminated as possible causes due to the prevailing conditions and location.

The extremely dry conditions contributed to a firestorm that reached UCT before it could be contained.  The conditions also explained why embers were able to ignite right across the campus, setting fire to vegetation that might not otherwise have burned, Erasmus said.

“We’re not talking about one or two fires at the same time, we’re talking about many originating and burning at same time on the campus,” he said.

Photographs showed leaves burning in gutters, as well as trees in flames next to buildings. “These all quite likely contributed to buildings catching on fire and losses being suffered.

“Our conclusion from fire investigation is that the spread of fire and loss was purely due to extremely low humidity on the day, which caused normal fuels to become highly combustible,” Erasmus said.

The report dismissed concerns around possible SANParks negligence, pointing out that firebreaks on the mountain had been maintained and alien vegetation cleared.  The fire-fighting response had been quick.

JP Smith, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, welcomed the SANParks report and reaffirmed the city’s commitment to minimising the risk of fire damage.

He said the city faced an ongoing challenge of managing the urban edge around Table Mountain National Park, particularly during the pandemic when disaster management regulations prohibited it from removing people living on the edge of the park.

SANParks CEO Luthando Dziba said the organisation would continue to improve its fire-management protocols and work with scientists around increased risks due to expected increases in extreme weather due to climate change.  


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