Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Striking a match – in the name of research
Author: Frieda le Roux
Published: 07/11/2017

​A form of “useful destruction” is how Dr. Richard Walls describes the research he is involved with as head of the Stellenbosch University’s fire engineering research unit. This includes burning down shacks to the value of about R4.3 million as part of the unit’s research on fires in informal settlements.

“With between 20 per cent and one third of South Africans living in informal housing*, being a victim of a fire in an informal settlement is a legitimate, major problem,” Richard says. “There is no research on informal settlement fires from an engineering side.” The growing number of shack dwellers living in all countries across all continents, only highlights the importance to address this potentially devastating problem. To this end, Richard and his team have received a grant of R4,3 million to investigate the nature of fires in informal settlements in order to better understand  factors such as spread rates, fuel loads, fire modelling, testing of alternative construction materials, requirement for fire breaks, the amount of water required to extinguish fires and more. The grant was made by the UK based Engineering and Physical Science Research council (EPSRC).

The University of Edinburgh are world-renowned fire science experts and since their collaboration with the SU on investigating informal settlement fires, other countries have also started to show their interest.

To illustrate the ignorance surrounding the problem, Richard says he recently received a well-intentioned but very unhelpful suggestion from an overseas researcher, who commented on the “vast amounts of space” available in Africa. According to him, simply leaving 10m clearings between any two shacks, should be adequate to keep fires from spreading.

However, they have had significant successes with the installation of more than 1 200 photoelectric smoke detectors in Wallacedene TRA informal settlement in Kraaifontein. According to community leaders this simple device already saved lives this past winter.

Richard, who hails from Johannesburg and only joined the SU as lecturer in 2015 – shortly after enrolling as a PhD-student – has experience in working with the homeless on the streets of downtown Jo’burg. In this regard, he has also spent time with people who have survived shack fires. While not directly related to the working he is currently doing, Richard says the outreach helped him to understand how different communities function and to see others as “regular people”. 

Thanks to the grant, Richard’s team will soon perform at least two experiments in which shacks will be burnt down to investigate the nature of fires in informal settlements. Shacks that closely resembles the real thing are built in conjunction with the Breede Valley Fire Department, who are also present when it is set alight. One of the tests, looking at the characteristics of different building materials, will include about eight shacks, while the other will investigate the spread of shack fires and include a specially built “informal settlement” of about 70 shacks.

“When it comes to fighting fires in informal settlements, the knowledge in the Western Cape is world-class,” Richard says of the disaster management personnel he has met during his research. “But because of staff shortages and other impeding factors, they often do not get time to reflect on what they have learnt in the field.”   

“Dr. Walls’ research shows towards the deep and tangible social impact that research at SU has on our local communities,” says Dr. Leslie van Rooi, senior director for Social Impact and Transformation at the SU. “He, like many other SU researchers, understands the value of ‘science for society’.”

*Statistics dealing with this figure varies quite significantly.