How do we reduce shack fires?

City’s poorest residents use both insurance and technology to fight fires

Photo of fire

A large fire destroyed parts of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay in March 2017. The number of informal settlement fires in Cape Town increased last year. Archive photo: Aletta Harrison

By Tessa Knight and Candy Chan

10 September 2019

Fire ravaged Section E, Masiphumelele in July. Over 250 homes were burnt. About 1,200 people were left homeless. Matric students, months away from writing their final exams, were left without uniforms and the identification documents needed to sit their exams.

Devastating fires like this take place frequently in informal settlements. We looked into what’s being done to prevent them and reduce the harm they do.

Cape Town saw a 13.5% increase in the number of informal dwellings affected by fire in the 2018/19 financial year over the previous year. This was according to Mayco Member for Safety and Security JP Smith, who announced the statistics at Gugulethu fire station on 28 August.

In August 2018, the Fire and Rescue Service attended to 24 fires. This year it was up to 44, Fire and Rescue spokesperson Jermaine Carelse told GroundUp. “In the case of informal settlement fires, three fire engines, two water tankers and a rescue vehicle will be immediately dispatched,” said Carelse.

Smith says that people are settling in informal settlements haphazardly or in places that are unfit to live. This, he says, makes it difficult to provide basic services and also “bedevils the work of agencies like the Fire and Rescue Service”.

Fires in informal settlements are caused by a number of hazards – open flames, paraffin lamps and stoves, and electrical faults.

People have been trying to deal with the threat of fires in two ways: insurance so that they can recover quickly from a fire, and technology to prevent fires in the first place.


Lumkani, an organisation started in 2014, offers fire insurance to residents living in informal settlements. For R70 a month, Lumkani installs a fire detection alarm and pays out up to R40,000 within five days. Monthly fees can be paid in cash, and the company offers a grace period for anyone who can’t afford a monthly payment.

Samuel Ginsberg and Francois Petousis developed a gadget that would eventually evolve into the Lumkani fire detection device. Petousis said the company pays R500 immediately so people have some relief in the aftermath of a fire. “Then once the assessors has been to review the damage our main goal is to make the process as quick as possible,” he said.

Of the 28 customers in Masiphumelele that recently burned down, 26 were paid out within five days. “We paid out R1.12 million,” Petousis told GroundUp. “We have a lot of people who want to sign up now, after seeing their neighbours getting paid and rebuilding quickly.”

Petousis said there are about 2,400 fire detectors in Masiphumelele. “Before 2016, it was one of the worst fire areas in the City,” he said. The detectors were installed in 2016 and the rate of fires in the township has gone down significantly since then, he said.

To date, Lumkani has installed approximately 40,000 fire detection devices, primarily in Johannesburg and Cape Town. They have also installed 4,000 devices in Bangladesh.

Lumkani fire detectors measure the rate of rise of heat, rather than detect smoke. This means that when the temperature in a shack starts to significantly increase, the device will detect the heat change and set off an alarm. If a gas cooker is placed directly underneath a Lumkani device, the sudden heat change will set off the alarm. Petousis explained that within the first week residents often put candles and cookers underneath the device to check if it works.

Technological solutions

In December 2018 the City of Cape Town launched a programme to install smoke detectors (as opposed to Lumkani’s fire detectors) in informal settlements. This programme was made possible by ward allocation funding and sponsorships by companies. So far, 500 smoke alarms have been issued in SST section, Khayelitsha, and 200 in the Egoli informal settlement in Philippi.

But, according to Petousis, smoke detectors are not very effective in informal houses where residents often uses fires or candles to cook and keep warm.

Fire retardant paint offers protection for up to two hours, delaying the spread of fire and buying people time to evacuate or extinguish the blaze.

The Khusela Ikhaya Project tries to provide fire retardant paint at an affordable price. It also organises volunteers to paint shacks. The paint has a burn rate of 30 to 45 minutes, giving shack dwellers extra time to either extinguish the fire or remove their belongings from the area.

There are three layers in fire-proofing a residence. First, Khusela Ikhaya applies a primer coat, then a layer of intumescent paint, and a colour top-coat. The cost of these three layers for a 1m2 area is R60. A City housing kit, which is issued after a fire completely destroys an informal dwelling, costs approximately R2,400 to paint.

Difficulty getting to fires

Despite efforts to prevent fires from occurring, when fires do break out firefighters often struggle to enter informal settlements because shacks are built close together.

Speaking at Gugulethu fire station, Smith said: “We’ve also noticed an increase in the number of double-storey structures in some informal settlements, which means an increase in the number of dwellings that are affected in the event of a fire. Add to that the narrow access routes, lack of street names, or exact locations, particularly in the case of new settlements, [and you] develop an understanding of the difficulties firefighters face.”

A contentious solution to this problem is known as reblocking. This means shacks are repositioned to create space for roads and infrastructure such as electricity and sewage services.

Although reblocking has worked in some places, such as Flamingo Crescent in Lansdowne, residents often oppose reblocking projects because it often means their homes will have to be torn down, relocated, and rebuilt smaller in order to make space for roads. A devastating fire spread through Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay in March 2017. The City decided to reblock the burnt area. The decision was the source of so much friction that violence erupted in the township a few months later. More than two years later the issue is unresolved.

Protecting one’s tiny piece of land

After the recent Masiphumelele fire, many residents sat and waited on their land to ensure no one else claimed it. Some even forewent the lunch of KFC provided by Gift of the Givers in order to protect their land and the materials they could recover, as they could not afford to leave their plots unattended in order to walk the few hundred meters to where the food was being handed out.

Although the City of Cape Town does provide housing kits to residents of informal settlements whose houses have been destroyed, these kits are not always delivered timeously. Petousis recounts stories of residents whose homes have burnt down, and who subsequently lost their jobs because they had to sit and wait on their land.

“In a fire situation you can’t even leave your plot of land to go to work or do anything else, because somebody else can just build where you live. So time is of the essence,” he said.

Dr Richard Walls, a lead researcher of Fire Engineering at Stellenbosch University, cautions that there is no “magic quick fix” to the issue of shack fires.

“This [situation] isn’t magically going to change overnight, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try doing something about it. And I do think we can improve the problem, but it will always be a problem when you’ve got combustible homes in a high density environment,” said Walls.

The root cause of shack fires is that people have little choice but to live in large, crowded informal settlements.

UPDATE on 12 September at 14:40: The article was updated to reflect the history of the invention of the Lumkani device more accurately.

Tessa Knight is a Daily Maverick intern who was seconded to GroundUp.