A research experiment has been conducted by the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University (FireSUN) in collaboration with the Western Cape Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue Services and the Breede Valley Municipality (BVM) fire department in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh to determine how to reduce the impact of shack fires.
The research was funded by the UK-based Global Challenges Research Fund.
The research revealed that 20 shacks were destroyed in five minutes and showed how quickly fires can spread in informal settlements.
The results of the experiment were recently published in Fire Technology, a leading academic journal in fire safety.
Professor Richard Walls, from FireSUN, who managed the project, said people often criticised the fire department for not acting swiftly, but the experiment showed the fire moving rapidly.
Walls said firefighters had always known this, but now there was experimental data to understand the problem and analyse interventions.
He said that from the experiment they could tell that certain interventions currently being implemented would have proved ineffective in slowing down the fire.
“Fire-resistant paint would have had little impact due to the intensity of the fire and the fact that the fire ignited homes through any small openings in these structures, negating the influence of coatings.
“Also, doors and windows in a densely packed settlement will always provide an easy entrance for fire,” Walls said.
He said the experiment was designed to simulate a fire line, which would be found in dense settlement areas as a large fire moved through it. The extensive instrumentation, thermal-imaging cameras, a drone and other equipment were used in the experiment to provide data on flame lengths, temperatures experienced, spread rates and details regarding when homes ignited.
Walls said from the time the flames were ignited it took around five minutes until the last home caught alight.
“This is a frightening figure when it is considered that often it can take many minutes for a resident to notice a fire, to contact the local fire brigade (often the wrong number is called), a fire truck to be dispatched and then possibly has to drive a long distance, for fighters to find the burning dwellings (in the midst of a settlement with no street names), to set up and finally extinguish the fire,” Walls said.
After 16 minutes, there were no homes left in the experiment and a pile of scrap metal was all that remained. Metre-long flames were registered emerging from the shacks and temperatures reached up to 1,200°C.
BVM deputy fire chief Josephus Pretorius said firefighters risked their lives to fight these dangerous fires and said it was exciting that the municipality was able to make this research possible.
Western Cape Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue Services’ Marlu Rust said they have been actively working on ways to improve fire safety within informal settlements and have been working closely with the Stellenbosch University over the past few years.
Rust said it was important for the government, academia and communities to work together in finding solutions.
Walls said there were no easy solutions to the problems, but at least the data showed what interventions were likely to be less effective.
He said computer models have been developed to simulate fire spread through settlements and may soon be a useful decision-making tool for analysing risk settlements and potentially develop fire safety strategies.