Lessons from Fire

The ancient originally Pagan, (but now Christianized) Festival of St. John is a winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere and is celebrated with a bonfire.   We recently attended the ceremony at our daughters Steiner school.  Beautiful flames connecting the dark earth with stars in the heavens.  Traditionally people celebrate the fires ability to purify.  The ceremonial bonfire is an opportunity to release anything heavy you have been carrying in your heart and become light again. Archangel Michaela is summoned with his sword to cut the chords and his shield to ward off the evil shadows. The purifying power of fire is praised in songs sung by little children with lanterns in the firelight. The oldest ones get to light the fire with special torches and there is an initiation challenge, to jump over the flames – a very daring thing to do. “No playing with fire”-we were always told.  “Respect this element,” we are told, its power can erase things -transforming solid matter smoke and ashes.

A few weeks ago a fire-storm tore through Knysna, Plettenberg and many places in between.   Although over 10 000 were evacuated, 638 homes burned down- including 400 informal structures, according to this report.   (Informal structures, I presume, means homes without foundations or formal permissions, made of iron sheeting and wood, and found fittings.-for those who don’t know.)

There were many unspoken invaluable losses, which could never be tallied in a news report.  Life times of art collections and antiques, photo albums, book manuscripts, great works in progress, possessions held dear for generations. Many antique family heirlooms were destroyed.  History was lost and made on the same day.  My 83 –year- old aunt lost her home in Brenton-Sea and was left with nothing but her dog and her car, which she could only drive down to the beach as there was no other escape.  (This was the second time she had been forced to flee from home, loosing everything.  The first was to escape the Russians during World War 2 in Germany)  This time, she refused to prepare or evacuate despite repeated warnings of the oncoming fire.  Her domestic servant (who had only just started working for her) insisted that they leave the house, or she would have remained.  Huge flames engulfed the whole neighbourhood.

knysna-fire Her daughter Kati who was working as a vet in Knysna had received a phone call from the emergency services saying that her mother refused to leave the house. She experienced extreme trauma trying to reach her mother she battled through a traffic jam. She tailgated emergency vehicles at the burning bridge and when she reached a wall of flames blocking the way home, had to turn back.  She returned to work at KAWS animal welfare, where people who had been evacuated were dropping off their animals as they fled. The animals had to be transported by truck out of the fire zone on mass.   She saved an ailing Daschond who was too fragile for this adventure from the truck.  That night she curled up with the sick dog on a friends spare mattress, not knowing what had become of her mother and their home. The next morning she drove out to find their home in ruins.  She spent a day searching for her mother and eventually after much detective work, found that she had been taken in by a family in Buffelsbaai.  (Residents of Brenton were transported along the beach in 4×4’s to Buffelsbaai by rescuers.)  Unfortunately she had slipped on the stairs that night and fallen, fracturing two vertebrae in her spine. (Luckily she is a very tough lady and just picked herself up, feeling sore.)  However the loss of a home can be like the loss of an old friend.  It takes time to recover.


There are many amazing stories of heroism during the fire. Like the one my cousin told me of a man who saved all the animals from a burning kindergarten where they kept poultry and other animals for the children. He gathered them all and herded them down to the river where he stood with them in the water until the fire had passed.

My best friend from school lost her family home of 4 generations, which was a national monument overlooking Knysna. It is hard to grasp the magnitude of these losses. Another old friend, who is a well known artist, Beezy Bailey, lost his holiday home in Plett  containing a lifetime of his best paintings.  He made a statement on Facebook, which went viral.  I believe it struck a chord because he was so mature and open to seeing the big picture even in the face of his own personal loss.

I believe that Armageddon is the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end.” He said. “ I’m more interested in how beautiful this photo is of my Plet house on fire than sad.  But Bird house will be rebuilt even better than before. The birds will come back .But please your support sympathy and sorrow must be focused on the hundreds of poor people with no insurance, and no nothing,who have lost everything.Let us unite in times like these , something we South Africans are so good at , and pick our selfs up by our boot straps and re build broken  hearts homes and lives together.”  Said Beezy.

Bird House Burns
Beezy’s house burning by Jan Venter

Indeed many came together to help, and the community was brought together by the tragedy. The entire country sent donations of food, clothes, household items. Truckloads were distributed. So many volunteers came to help that they began turning them away. There was a huge outpouring of kindness to bring back hope to the devastated.  My cousin Kati and Aunt Gisella are recovering, having found a new home in a retirement complex. They have clothes to wear due to the kind donations of people from all over the country. Amazingly trauma counselling is being offered, which is hugely important as a first step to functional recovery.   On top of having to care for her mother and find a new home, Kati is nursing many animals with burn wounds from the fire. The natural habitat of many wild animals has been destroyed as well as their food. This has created a need for bush feeding of bushbuck and birds and other forest creatures. The after effects of the fire on the environment may take their toll on the water systems as there is nothing to hold the soil. Sediments will wash into the rivers. Landslides are a likely after= effect being anticipated by foresters.

The cause of the fires, were much debated.  A lot of fingers were pointed at arsonists, raising racist speculations and sparking another kind of fire of anger and hatred.  One friend on social media blamed the monoculture of Pine plantations in the area, which are a fire hazard under very dry conditions – there was a very bad drought. I think this is a valid argument. When those extreme hurricane force winds tore through, carrying burning debris ahead and fanning them- it lit a whole band of fires. 100 km winds carrying flaming debris created a firestorm of intense heat, causing spontaneous combustion and the fire jumped roads and even across the Knysna lagoon- according to The Sunday Times.  The drought ridden tinder dry vegetation fanned by gusts of winds blew up in seconds.  Catching people and animals unawares.  The effect was beyond devastating.  The fire burned for days.  It came in and out of Knysna town three times, burning down houses in different areas on each occasion.  “Just when one thought it was finally over and it was going to be a normal day, the whole thing started again.”  My friend Robyn told me.  She had just moved from a smallholding outside of Plett and was in the process of buying a home in Knysna.  The new home burned down and part of the school where she worked, but luckily she did not loose her possessions and the sale had not gone through.  So she considers herself one of the lucky ones.  ” The ones who didn’t loose their homes feel guilty for being so lucky compared to the ones who didn’t.” She says.  Robin had to evacuate three times during the fire storm.  Each time, she took less.  On the third run she had it worked out: laptop, photo’s, jacket and boots.

Strangely nobody publicly blamed “Climate Change” a few days after Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Treaty.   Strange because raging fires and droughts like this are obvious symptoms of Climate Change, but sometimes it’s not easy to see the big picture.

Now beyond the devastation, there is a flurry of activity as those who were insured begin to rebuild.  The insurance companies are insisting that the rebuild takes place along more environmentally friendly lines than before.  On social media, residents are talking about replanting indigenous plants, where there were aliens before.  Encouraging each other to building with cobstone, which is quicker and more fire-resistant and environmentally friendly.  There is even talk of using hemp fibre to rebuild low cost homes. Environmentalists on social media are suggesting that pine plantations be replaced with hemp plantations, which are quicker to cultivate and can be used for building materials.  Hemp puts nitrogen into the soil, which is necessary after the acidification of the soil caused by the pine plantations.

Some years ago, Biomimicry SA created a Permaculture design similar to The Eden Project. A vision of the town as an eco-village working according to self-sufficient permaculture and biomimicry principles.  If only this vision could be realized.

Visualise Knysna becomming the perfect example of an environmentally sound design for a community living in harmony with nature.   That would be the most positive outcome.  Perhaps this would be a good time to apply these principles in the rebuilding stage. Employment opportunities for locals would help uplift those who lost everything including their jobs, tools and businesses.  This may seem idealistic, but a spark of idealism in this time grows hope.

The purifying element of the fire may have been devastating for those who have lost everything, but the silver lining of the dark cloud of smoke, is that their change of circumstances may release them from things which may have been holding them back. Being open to adapting to change is the life principle, which is most conducive to survival.

Those who are prepared to move on and adapt this kind of philosophical attitude will suffer least from the disaster. It’s called resilience. For in it lies the opportunity to get closer to things of true value, beyond the material world. For example, my aunt who stubbornly held on to her home, which had become in her old age,way too big to manage on her own, is now in a safer and more supportive environment-a retirement home with carers.  My friend who lost her family home, is free to create something new which still honours her family but is adapted to her needs. The beautiful garden and the view are still there. Beezy is already dreaming of creative ways he will rebuild the house that burned down.  They were the lucky ones, the poorest of the poor are the real victims of climate change.

Armageddon is the beginning not the end of the world.  We can choose our responses to any situation.  We can live in denial and pretend that no fire is coming and that we are immortal and able to battle the power of nature with our bare hands.  Or we can be wise like the fittest life forms who have survived evolution thus far, and adapt to changes, bend with the wind and create conditions conducive to life. Hello world: Climate change is real. It’s time to act before home burns down.

Interesting that this fire took place a week after Trump pulled out of the Climate Change Agreement of Paris at COP 21. An agreement solidified at Marekesh. Already China is leading the race to reducing emissions to zero by 2050. A better world is possible if all parties in the global village co-operate. A week after the Knysna inferno, there was a fire in a tall building in London.  The tower contained 600 homes.  80 people died.  In the garden route fire at the last count 850 homes burned and 9 people died (we have no count on how many animals.) In a dense city tower, the residents had much less chance of escape.  The same week in Portugal, a fire tore through a forest incinerating people in their cars as they attempted to escape.

The question arises as the escape margin narrows by the minute, whether or not we have any chance of leaving a planet that is conducive to life for future generations, or even whether we will survive the catastrophic symptoms of climate change that we may have to face on mass in every part of the world unless huge lifestyle and economic changes are made. This means a change of perception and the will to halt all extractive mining, the use of fossil fuels and to change the way the worlds economy functions, so that it creates conditions conducive to life by leaving zero waste. Something like the magnificently evolved eco-system in forests that have burned down.

Please help feed the animals who are now starving in the forests after the fire.  The humans had lots of help, but the animals have to fend for themselves in a desert of burned habitat. https://www.facebook.com/edenbeneedin/?fref=mentions.


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