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Fact-Check — Is Cape Town being set alight by arsonists?

Fact-Check — Is Cape Town being set alight by arsonists?
Farmworkers and farmers keep an eye on the fire in front of a vineyard on c on 28 January 2024. The teams were protecting homes and vineyards in the area. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Many people on social media believe that the sheer number of fires on Cape Town’s mountains are suspicious and some are saying it’s part of an arson campaign. We checked the facts.

In December 2023 alone, the City of Cape Town’s emergency services responded to 2,425 vegetation fires. 

Table Mountain National Parks recently reported an increase in fire incidents, recording almost one a day, over January 2024. 

Is it possible that all these fires are occurring organically – or is the real cause some kind of concerted arson campaign?

Many on social media believe that the sheer number of fires on Cape Town’s mountains are suspicious – and that it might even be part of some kind of campaign to destabilise the DA-led Western Cape ahead of this year’s general elections.

A statement said that in the case of at least three of these fires investigated by Enviro Wildfire, it was suspected that blazes had been started with malicious intent.

Fire and arson?

But Enviro Wildfire, the company which is often brought in to investigate the cause of wildfires, has said that most of these fires are not arson.

The company said in a Facebook post on 8 January: “Enviro Wildfire is regularly appointed by landowners, the authorities, insurance companies and attorneys to conduct veldfire investigations across the Western Cape and further afield.

“ The vast majority of these fires are as a result of negligence, such as vagrants or religious groups failing to properly extinguish a camping or cooking fire. 

“Just because an ignition results in a big fire or there are numerous fires on a single day does not automatically indicate that it is malicious. While arson does account for some fires, they are not as common as is assumed.”

International organisation Global Forest Watch, which tracks the loss of vegetation around the world, also reports that the volume of recent fires in Cape Town is normal, compared to the total for previous years going back to 2012. It states that the highest number of significant fires recorded in a year was in 2015 (with 210). 

Two veld fire factors

Two factors are basically considered to make wildfires around Cape Town inevitable. The high amount of very flammable alien vegetation, and the volume of people moving around the veld.

A third factor is climate change. Researchers have warned that fires in Cape Town are likely to get more frequent and a little worse, as severe wildfire weather conditions are worsening. 

There is a final point to note: In other places around the world where the rate and intensity of local wildfires are increasing, populations are also looking for political conspiracies to explain them. 

In the US, in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, devastating fires in recent years have been blamed on left-wing activist collective Antifa, even though there is absolutely no evidence for this, and the FBI has tried to shut down the rumours.

As we often see it’s easier to scapegoat politics than to have serious discussions about environmental policy. DM

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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Greeff Kotzé says:

    You have an orphaned phrase in the second section. 🙂 The phrase “cause of wildfires, has said that most of these fires are not arson” is repeated a second time in its own paragraph.

    Also, the phrase “…and the FBI has tried to shut down the rumours” sounds slightly nefarious. If I might be so bold, I’d suggest “debunk” instead of “shut down” so that we don’t trigger all the conspiracy theorists?

  • Bill Gild says:

    It certainly isn’t lightening!

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    As expected, you omit the crucial data – “Enviro Wildfire cast doubt on arson being responsible for all fires” – yes, but how many ARE caused by arson?

  • Dominic Rooney says:

    “ The vast majority of these fires are as a result of negligence, such as vagrants or religious groups failing to properly extinguish a camping or cooking fire. ” In the circumstances of heightened fire-risk, these should be treated as arson. Wasn’t a British tourist prosecuted a while ago for throwing a cigarette out of a car ?

  • JC Coetzee says:

    All fires that started because of human behaviour, should be regarded as malicious. The definition of ‘arson’ is too narrow. So how many of the fires started because of negligent human beings?

  • Pierre Strydom says:

    Yes, people LOVE these conspiracy theories. The fact is, the Western Cape had above-average winter rain, and is experiencing an above-average dry and hot summer. This all translates to a greater risk of runaway wildfires.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    But some of these fires are indeed started by arsonists. There are witnesses to that. Even if a single large fire, like the Glenridge one, is arson, it’s unacceptable. We know that the Prasa and Transnet fires were arson. We, or rather, they, the Government, has to acknowledge that fires of this kind is not “political” because no-one takes responsibility for it, and there is no desired outcome as such. Therefore they are acts of sabotage, which amounts to treason. The Hawks – if they still exist, or have not been completely incapacitated – should be investigating, not some private insurance operator. These are very serious crimes and should be treated accordingly. The “more people in the veld” are basically homeless people who should not he allowed to live where they do, for the very reason that they are unable or unwilling to control their impact on it. The “act” of homelessness might not be a crime, but negligently allowing your cooking fires to devastate large amounts of veld with the massive loss of life that goes along with it, is certainly punishable.

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    Rebecca, your comment “Two factors are basically considered to make wildfires around Cape Town inevitable. The high amount of very flammable alien vegetation, and the volume of people moving around the veld” misses the most basically important reason of all. The natural vegetation of most of the Peninsula is fynbos, which is a fire-adapted veld type that MUST burn to regenerate; the very chemistry and architecture of fynbos plants encourages fire, as do the various seed distribution and protection mechanisms that have evolved in fynbos. It is NEVER a question of IF fynbos will burn – it is ALWAYS a question of WHEN. As sure as the high tide follows the low, fynbos WILL burn, usually on a 10 to 15 year cycle. How long will it take for journalists to learn this very simple fact?

    • Martin Smith says:

      Yes, quite odd that ‘fact checkers’ should omit this most salient ‘fact’.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Not all “fynbos” needs fire, e.g the bulbs like watsonia and various grasses like restio.

      Many do, but the problem in the fire cycle is those plants require years to develop seed so after three fires in ten years, those plants disappear as there were no seeds left. In places some protea species have entirely disappeared because of this.

  • Liesl van Wyk says:

    Can you exapnd on this – as it is very vague: “A third factor is climate change. Researchers have warned that fires in Cape Town are likely to get more frequent and a little worse, as severe wildfire weather conditions are worsening. ” How are the severe wildfire weather conditions worsening? Do you have data on how the weather have actually worsened?

    • Johan Buys says:

      the 20-odd weather stations in western cape data shows 0.15 degree increase in mean temperature per decade, which is higher than the global change. That 20 station data disguises the extremes in some stations. Rainfall change is all over the show, with Southern Cape showing about the same drop in annual rainfall as other regions have increase in annual rainfall. Of concern is the rate of increase is increasing. something like 8 of the warmest ever years are in the last decade.

      Elsenburg & Univ Stellenbosch have good research (to help farming) if you want to dive into the data.

      January 2024 data is going to be brutal – it felt brutal in Winelands.

    • Andrew Newman says:

      The biggest direct factor is the El-Nino cycle.

  • Simon Winde says:

    Take as an example the four fires we had around Ocean View and Simon’s Town. Within two weeks we had four fires.. Coincidence? I think not.

    • Denise Smit says:

      We travelled to and from the Peninsula on the N2 last week. Sir Louwries Pass, very suspicious smoke from below the cliffs where it would be impossible to get easily, very suspicious. People do not live so high up against the mountain. The whole of the Grabouw area will small and bigger fires everywhere. With the wind conditions also contributing to a quick spread. Visibly it looks some at least may be arson

    • Andrew Newman says:

      Fires were not extinguished properly and restarted.

  • Andrew Newman says:

    Everything is very dry. Even a rock fall can start a fire.
    By my Rainfall measurements in Somerset West, Oct-Jan has been the driest in more than 12 years.
    In Australia electric fences are switched off when the fire hazard is so high.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    And there is comes. The inevitable. The third reason “climate change”.

    Researchers warned it’s likely to get worse in the future.

    Likely. In the future, based on models, that absolutely can’t predict the past.

    But that climate change hasn’t happened yet and thus, this year, and last year and every year before for it, and next year won’t have climate change as causal effect. It’s very easy to validate that in IPCC reports.

    The vast majority are caused by people, mostly through negligence. This is the global reality.

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