Many people living in informal settlements have limited or no access to electricity and the use of paraffin stoves and heaters is common. As such, quite a number of shack fires are caused by paraffin stoves or candles that are knocked over. Owing to the proximity of these structures to one another, fires spread quickly, and since the year 2000 over 120 000 structures have been destroyed in this way.
In fact, two years ago, a team from Stellenbosch University, the University of Edinburg, and the Breede Valley fire department conducted the world’s largest informal settlement fire experiment. Twenty full-scale homes were set up, instrumented, and burnt down to try and understand the spread between homes in informal settlements. Only five minutes after ignition, all 20 homes had caught fire – showing the rapid rate of fire spread between such dwellings.
In one of the worst informal settlement fires in the history of the country which took place on New Year’s Day, Khayelitsha residents claim that it took up to two hours for the first fire truck to arrive on the scene – despite the fact that the local fire station is only one kilometer down the road. If then 20 shacks can catch fire in five minutes, the response time (or lack thereof) certainly plays an integral role.
While there has been a 13.5% increase in the number of informal dwellings affected by fires, there has also been a 14% drop in the number of special service calls (car accidents, hazardous materials, rescues), a 5.5% reduction in the number of formal residential fires and a 29% reduction in the number of fire fatalities, according to the most recent fire and rescue service statistics.
As more people migrate to the country’s towns and cities, new informal settlements regularly spring up unannounced. The high density of these urban areas, and the flammability of the materials used to build in them, make spontaneous and rapidly spreading conflagrations a constant threat.
In addition, the South African government has struggled to keep up with the demand for low-income housing, many people live in informal settlements for years while they wait for government housing. For newly arrived migrants and the unemployed, shacks are also the only affordable accommodation in urban areas. According to census data, 9% of all South African households now live in informal settlements where access to electricity, water, and sanitation is poor or non-existent.
Just recently, Minister Lindiwe Sisulu visited Masiphumelele to see for herself the scale of the devastation wrought by last week’s fire. The fire swept through part of the sprawling informal settlement, destroying more than 1,000 homes and leaving thousands homeless and with only the clothes on their backs. The Human Settlements, Water, and Sanitation minister spent time talking to residents and promised to do something to find a permanent solution to their housing issues.
Researcher Warren Smit, from the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities programme, once said that the upgrading of all informal settlements is key to reducing the threat of shack fires, but that those trying to tackle the issue face a web of problems linked to institutional capacity, financial constraints and access to land.
Informal settlements are a bit difficult to manage and it’s tricky to find the appropriate type of technology that’s going to work in that environment in terms of detecting fires.
Computer models have been developed to simulate fire spread through settlements, and may soon be useful decision-making tools for analyzing risk in settlements, and are a huge potential for developing fire safety strategies.
As Lumkani, we are playing our part to try and stop shack fires. In fact, we have installed an early warning fire detection system in over 50,000 South African shacks since 2015. In the first six months of operation, our system prevented 16 incidents.
The key focus we had in developing our fire-detection system is the high risk of shack fires. The system was designed specifically for the informal settlement environment, and we will continue to grow our work in these areas.
By Kealeboga Magalefa, Marketing Manager at Lumkani.