Rebuilding after the Knysna Fire
The rebuilding of Knysna following the devastating Knysna Fire of 7 June 2017 is likely to be with us for a considerable period of time.
In the past six weeks since the fire, announcements have been made about the Rebuilding Committee that has been established by the Provincial Government to commence with the coordination of the reconstruction that will be required. Other than repairing infrastructure, housing is a priority as is the economy in the form of jobs, restoring monthly incomes and getting businesses to function normally.
In Knysna approximately 10 000 citizens needed to be evacuated on the night of 7 June 2017. The traumatic impact of the fire on the residents of Knysna will still be felt for a long time. The damage to buildings, businesses, infrastructure and employment will affect the economies of Knysna and surrounding towns on the Garden Route. Knysna is a crucial tourism hub in the region. It is estimated that 2 500 jobs have been lost or impacted not to mention the thousands who lost all their possessions and a lifetime of memories.
In assessing the way forward during the reconstruction phase it may be useful to gain insights by comparing the Knysna experience with that of the Valley Fire in northern California in September 2015. There are many similarities.
The forested Lake County was the scene of California’s third most destructive fire in history. Nearly 1300 houses were destroyed out of a total of just over 2 000 structures affected with 20 000 people displaced. The fire covered 303 square kilometres (two and a half times the size of San Francisco) and destroyed an estimated 7 million trees. Insured losses amounted to US$840 million (approximately R10 billion) and total damage at US$1,5 billion (approximately R18 billion). In news reports, 15 months after the Californian fire, stories were related of the experiences of citizens who have to deal with the slow progress of rebuilding their houses and restoring the surrounding areas. Many people continue to live in rented motor homes or trailers while they have waited for insurance settlements and red tape requirements to approve building plans. Due to the rural nature, in certain instances, tarred roads and electrical infrastructure had to be rebuilt, sewer lines had to be built where none previously existed and water networks replaced. It is estimated that 28% of houses were not insured. Some households have not had the courage to rebuild their homes and have moved away. The state government inter alia provided assistance to clear properties of the building rubble that resulted from the fire. Within the economy there have been concerns that businesses have suffered as some residents have moved away reducing the client base of the small businesses sector, along with a relatively slow re-building process up to December 2016 and the negative impact on tourism and the forestry industry.
The comparisons that can be made to the Knysna Fire are apparent. Some media reports have indicated that more than 1 000 houses have been totally destroyed with more than 300 suffering serious damage. A significant portion of these properties were reportedly uninsured. The Tourism Update website reported on 22 June 2017 that 358 rooms (18%) in accommodation establishments had been lost out of a total of 1 994 available rooms. It has also been stated that some small business owners have been badly affected by the fire. Retail Capital, a SME funder, has reported instances of business owners who lost their homes and personal effects in the fire having to resort to using working capital from the businesses to provide emergency funding for their personal tragedies. Apart from losses within the tourism industry, a forestry and furniture factory hub has been lost as well as operating farms and educational facilities. Total losses from the fire are estimated at R4 billion.
The review and comparison with the Valley Fire was undertaken to ascertain whether the Californian experience could provide lessons for the reconstruction required in Knysna. It is apparent that the healing process will be lengthy with much humanitarian and counselling support required. Many people will have found the experience too traumatic to face re-building their lives in the same area. Many citizens have lost clothing, furniture and personal effects, jobs, their own houses or rented accommodation. There is an urgent need to provide stability to citizens in the form of temporary accommodation and the basic living needs and getting the jobs-income-business cycle flowing again.
It is clear that a collaborative approach will be required to enlist private sector involvement to provide innovative support to the broader business sector to ensure that crucial sectors such as tourism, forestry and furniture, and agriculture can be nurtured and re-built. Cash flow cycles that have been disrupted would need to be re-established. Temporary housing stock may be required to ensure sufficient accommodation is available for the forthcoming summer holiday season.
With innovative ideas and actions, valuable lessons can be learnt about collaboration and helping a local and regional economy recovery from a disaster. These lessons can be useful in re-igniting the broader South African economy.
Leon van Wyk of Invest Garden Route writes this in his personal capacity. His psychologist brother, Francois and family live in Lake County where they lost outbuildings, solar power and water installations during the Valley Fire.