While devastating flames were still blazing across Simon’s Town slopes, a savvy investigator was picking up clues to figure out its cause.
There was a lot at stake. The fire along Cape Town’s southern peninsula last Wednesday and Thursday destroyed a number of homes and holiday cottages. Some residents were left with little more than salvaged pieces of furniture, or their most important documents.
But collecting evidence in these cases was a bit more complicated than at a regular “crime scene”, so to speak.
“It’s difficult, but not impossible,” said Rob Erasmus, of Enviro Wildfire Services, who was tasked with investigating wildfires nationally by the SA National Parks (SANParks).
He said firefighting efforts usually contaminated most of the scene. Driving vehicles, dragging hoses and spraying water can very quickly destroy a match used to light a fire or a ball of paper. Petrol or paraffin can also wash away.
Erasmus, registered with the International Association of Arson Investigators, was present as the drama in Simon’s Town unfolded. His investigation was already at an advanced stage.
Because of all the “complexities and implications” of the Simon’s Town fire, he would resume his work as soon as he got an official appointment letter from SANParks to look into the case.
The letter would assist in interviews with landowners and other parties, such as the SA Navy.
Police had neither the “skills or capacity” to investigate these fires, Erasmus said. “They have the belief that all the evidence has already burnt away.”
Table Mountain National Parks fire chief Philip Prins told News24 on Friday that early signs from the investigation indicated that foul play may have been involved.
“The fire did not start on SANParks property, but on the defence force’s property [in Simon’s Town]. The report hasn’t been submitted in full yet, but there are suspicions the fire could have been started deliberately,” Prins said.
STARTED BY AN ARSONIST?
Erasmus said he had developed a number of hypotheses on how the fire started and was ready to test them.
Amid potential veld fire weather conditions, three fires also broke out along Glencairn Expressway recently. Some residents speculated on Facebook that all the fires in the area were linked and started by an arsonist.
Prins could not confirm there was a connection. “That would just be a suspicion,” he said.
He said the park covered a huge area of Cape Town, which made it very difficult to stop those who started fires, or who threw cigarette stubs out their car.
“We work on an initial response and we have a helicopter on standby for the park,” he said. “We know which areas are at risk.” News24