On 26 October Prof Richard Walls presented the Academy Lecture online from the University of Cape Town. Recently the Charlotte Maxeke hospital, the library and other buildings at UCT, the homes of 10,000 people in Hout Bay and billions of Rands worth of homes in Knysna were destroyed by fire. These fires affected homes, businesses, veld areas and informal settlements. The number of fires and the cost of fires is increasing every year in South Africa – whilst in some developed countries the trend is going the other way. This presentation seeked to introduce the profession of fire safety engineering through posing interesting questions such as: How do wildland fire spread? How do Ecobrick homes (consisting of 2 litre Coke bottles with non-recyclables inside) burn? Do fire retardant paints actually make shacks safer? Will my car catch fire if I leave a bottle of alcohol hand sanitiser in it on a very hot day?
Prof Richard Walls is the head of the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University, Africa’s first research team with a focus on fire engineering and structural fire design. His areas of research include structural fire design, informal settlement fire safety, timber in fire (CLT), full-scale fire testing, modelling, structural steel and burning things down Myth Buster style (has destroyed more than 70 full-scale homes). He works closely with local fire services developing solutions for informal settlement fire problems, and was involved in an analysis of the homes that burnt down in the 2017 Knysna Fire disaster.