Umlilo! How a Mobilised Community Contained Fire Outbreak in Khayelitsha

By Yolande Hendler (on behalf of CORC)

 “It was about ten to one. We were asleep and suddenly we just heard the ringing of the Lumkani fire detection device. Everyone was shouting ‘umlilo, umlilo!’ which means ‘fire, fire!’ When we woke up and went outside, it was easy to locate the fire because petrol makes high flames. We saw that the fire was burning an entire shack.” (Thamara Hela, Community Leader, UT Gardens)

ISN Community Leader Thamara Hela points to a structure that largely withstood the fire

ISN Community Leader Thamara Hela points to a structure that largely withstood the fire

The community of UT Gardens in Site B Khayelitsha partnered with the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) in early 2014 to install the Lumkani fire detection device in 250 of its 400 households as part of a broader approach to informal settlement upgrading. Since then, at least one fire broke out in the settlement due to an outdoor cooking fire. The incident occurred soon after the Lumkani device was installed in November 2014 and burnt only one shack as the community was alerted through the settlement-wide ringing of the Lumkani device. The fire on January 16, 2016 however, was different.

“It was very difficult to control the fire because of the wind. It spread quickly. Altogether 13 structures burnt down and 2 were damaged. In UT Gardens we have a total of 400 structures with 1402 people living in them. When I saw where the fire was, I called the fire brigade immediately. The owner and his girlfriend were still inside the burning structure. The fire brigade arrived quickly but it took long for them to get inside our settlement because it is so dense. We later found out from the owner of the structure that the fire was started on purpose because there was petrol poured around the structure by a woman in the community.” (Thamara Hela, Community Leader, UT Gardens)

Debris after the fire

Debris after the fire

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Clearing debris the morning after the fire

Given the high density of structures the fire quickly spread to surrounding structures and burnt them down, including the home of ISN leader Lumka Khawuta.

“That night I slept at my friend’s place two structures away from my shack. My neighbour was screaming. She has asthma and knew that there was smoke. Before the device rang, she told us there was fire. When I checked, the fire had already reached my shack because it was very windy at that time. I tried calling my brother (we share a structure) and the fire station. There were 3 fire trucks. At first the water was not enough to combat the fire. Many neighbours woke up because the Lumkani device was ringing. As a team we tried to throw water on the flames. It was difficult to stop the fire from spreading because it was started by petrol and reached gas stoves in the other structures. It burnt down everything I have.” (Lumka Khawuta, UT Gardens)

Lumka Khawuta (far right) with installed Lumkani device in background

Lumka Khawuta (far right) with installed Lumkani device in background

The community drew on the City of Cape Town’s advanced disaster kit, which provides 10m2 panels to each affected household. Due to its active membership in ISN and the community’s investment in the cost of the Lumkani device, the community engaged the SA SDI Alliance (including ISN) for assistance. The Alliance agreed to support the affected households with a further 10m2 of material. This enabled the community to rebuild structures at 20m2. Thamara and Lumka, both ISN leaders, pushed for the new structures to be erected in a reblocked layout which would facilitate easier emergency vehicle access and wider pathways between structures. This would enable a more long-term approach to mitigating fires in the future.

Reblocked layout co-designed by community members and CORC

Reblocked layout co-designed by community members and CORC

Thamara Hela and Thembi Ngcuka (CORC) during reconstruction

Thamara Hela and Thembi Ngcuka (CORC) during reconstruction

View on to partially reblocked and reconstructed area with courtyard area in centre

View on to partially reblocked and reconstructed area with courtyard area in centre

The value of a community-wide response

“I am certain that if there was no wind that night less structures would have burnt. When you hear the ringing of the Lumkani device you always wake up because you know something is happening. First your device rings, then it spreads to the neighbours’ devices, then to the mother device. Then all devices in the community start ringing. We know that the devices cannot stop a fire. But if you are alerted you can at least do something about the fire.” (Thamara Hela, UT Gardens)

“The Lumkani device helped because it was making a lot of noise and woke everyone up. All my neighbours have Lumkani, so they got up to help other people.” (Lumka Khawuta, ISN Leader, UT Gardens)

“Seeing that the fire was a case of arson and involved petrol, the Lumkani system worked well; those in the line of the fire were able to wake up. 13 shacks were destroyed but we believe these would have been more without the device and perhaps there would have been lives lost.” (David Gluckman, Director of Lumkani)

“At first the community did not want to contribute to the device. But the reason ISN members believe in contributions is so that the community can help themselves. When we make contributions, we create order in our community. It makes people take responsibility” (Thamara Hela, UT Gardens)

In the reflections of Thamara, Lumka and David (Lumkani Director), the power of a community-wide response is evident. The value of a community-wide response is rooted in an approach where communities take the lead in their own development initiatives: from identifying the value of a technology to co-developing, co-financing co-implementing and co-assessing it.

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