News / South Africa

Yolandé Stander
3 minute read
7 Jun 2018
12:26 pm

Knysna fires saw people working together

Yolandé Stander

Knysna's devastating fires last year are still fresh in the memories of residents in and around the region, including Plettenberg Bay.

The Western Head up in smoke gutting the Featherbed premises. Photo: Mark Taylor

While the devastation of the June 2017 fires is still fresh in the memories of Garden Route residents, there is a different kind of fire burning a year later – a passion among locals to lend a helping hand during any crisis situation, big or small, Knysna Plett Herald reports.

“If there is one thing that the fires have shown us, is that the people of Plettenberg Bay can work together,” says resident Sally Turner who, along with several other residents in Plett, played an instrumental role in relief and support efforts.

READ MORE: Update: Knysna fire started by ‘human activity’

Last year’s fires resulted in about 1 000 residents fleeing their homes, about 30 homes being destroyed, seven deaths and countless injuries.

Town shows the way

This cooperation has worked so well that other towns have knocked on Plett’s door for advice.

Turner explains that when the fires broke out a support network was immediately established. Residents with different skill sets came together to assist in anything from organising relief and logistics to medical assistance and counselling.

This network is still active, and is able to respond to any emergency in Plett. “When the Plett Rage came to town after the fires, these volunteers were ready to assist in providing support and worked like a well-oiled machine. The festival was incident free.”

Proactive role

The team has also taken on a proactive role has identified some of the town’s vulnerabilities, from fire to flood risks. These vulnerabilities have since been addressed, and include the establishment of action plans should disaster strike.

Venter explains that authorities from Plettenberg Bay and other Garden Route Towns have “plugged into the network” after the fires.

“For instance, if there is a crime in George, authorities distribute the necessary information to the network and everyone lends a helping hand, whether it is spreading the word to be on the lookout for a suspicious vehicle or details about a suspect. This has proven successful in many instances. The latest was a missing person from George. The registration number and photo of the person was distributed and an officer from one of our security companies on the network spotted the vehicle and person was found,” Venter says.

Fire relief centre

The organisational skills of the network were best highlighted at the fire relief centre that was set up to deal with donations.

“Donations started flooding in as soon as news of the devastation started spreading. We had hundreds of tons of donations that made its way to Plett. We had about 200 tons of food and 300 tons of clothing alone,” says Marius Venter, another key player in support efforts.

Every item that went out to affected communities was logged and accounted for.

“We wanted to make sure that we had one central point for donations and that the process was done correctly, fairly and transparently. I believe we succeeded as we did not have a single complaint during the time,” Turner says.

Not only disaster

All fire victims were assisted, she says. “Once those affected had what they needed, we still had donations left and started distributing to neighbouring areas from Tsitsikamma to Knysna. After this, there was still quite a bit left, so we decided to distribute the donations to those in need. Every school, every soup kitchen, every community in need of help received something.”

To continue assisting fire victims, Venter, Turner and Neville Peterson set up the Plett Fire Fund – an NPO that is audited to ensure transparency – and they have since raised about R600 000. Some of these funds have been used to rebuild homes in Kranshoek, where several residents lost not only their homes, but all they own.

A year later, on May 30, 2018, a further amount of about R300 000 was paid out to the organisation from the Bitou mayoral disaster fund.

“The fires were a major disaster, but from it came a lot of good,” Venter says.

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