An assessment of climate, weather, and fuel factors influencing a large, destructive wildfire in the Knysna region, South Africa

01 October 2018

Background: In June 2017, wildfires burned 15 000 ha around the town of Knysna in the Western Cape, destroying > 800 buildings, > 5000 ha of forest plantations, and claiming the lives of seven people. We examined the factors that contributed to making this one of the worst fires on record in the region. Results: One third of the area that burned was in natural vegetation (mainly fynbos shrublands), and more than half was in plantations of invasive alien (non-native) pine trees, or in natural vegetation invaded by alien trees. We used satellite imagery to assess burn severity in different land cover types by comparing pre- and post-fire images to estimate biomass consumed. We used daily weather data from two weather stations to calculate fire danger and drought indices over 70 years, and compared the fire weather conditions during the 2017 Knysna fires to the long-term weather record. The amount of biomass consumed was significantly higher in plantations of invasive alien trees, and in fynbos invaded by alien trees, than in uninvaded fynbos, providing support for the contention that invasion by alien trees increases the impact and difficulty of control of wildfires. Fire danger indices on the days of the fires were in the top 0.1 to 0.2% of days in the historic record, indicating that fire weather conditions were extreme but not unprecedented. The fires were preceded by a prolonged drought, and 18-month running means for two drought indices were the highest on record. Conclusion: The severity of the fires was exacerbated by very high fire danger conditions, preceded by an unprecedented drought, and further worsened by the conversion of natural fynbos vegetation to plantations, and invasion of vegetation by alien trees. Historical fire suppression also resulted in fuel buildups, further aggravating the problem of fire control, while residential development within and adjacent to fire-prone areas increased the risks faced by residents. Our results support calls to control invasive alien plants, reduce commercial planting of invasive alien trees, strictly regulate development in areas of high fire risk, and maintain awareness of the need for fire-wise practices.