Cape blaze sets social media on fire

With the Table Mountain National Park, a vast area of mountains and thousands of acres of indigenous and cultivated forests running down the spine of Cape Town, runaway fires are an ever-present danger.

This wilderness on the city’s doorstep is what makes Cape Town such a popular tourist destination and a great city in which to work and play. The Park contains one of world’s most diverse floral kingdoms and is populated with a wide range of indigenous plant and teeming animal life. But as the city has developed and grown, suburbs have increasingly encroached on the borders of the park, making the houses that have sprung up on the urban fringe vulnerable.

This ever-present danger became a reality last month when a fire broke out on the mountains above Muizenberg, a small seaside suburb. Driven by strong winds it quickly spread, escalating into one of the worst fires the city has experienced since huge fires ravaged Cape Town in 2000, the worst the city had experienced in decades.

For almost a week from the beginning of March exhausted firefighters, including helicopter and fixed wing aircraft pilots flying sorties in dangerous and smoky conditions to water bomb the flames, fought massive runaways fires that ravaged more than 6,000 hectares of forest and mountain vegetation.

Helicopter Cape Town ()

Pictured: A firefighting helicopter fills its bucket with water from a lake before returning bomb the flames on Muizenberg Mountain. Photo by Justin Sholk.

Several homes were destroyed, but miraculously the only casualty was a helicopter pilot who was killed when he was forced to make a crash landing while water bombing the fires.

Any journalist who has worked in Cape Town has, at some stage, covered big fires. But this time there was a new element in the mix – thanks to the exponential growth of social media and smartphones that has placed ordinary people at the centre of breaking news.

There has been an exponential growth in the use of social media platforms in recent years, as revealed in the South African Social Media Landscape 2015 report by WorldWideWorx (WWW) and FUSEWARE

There has been a rise of 53 per cent and 65 per cent respectively in the number of YouTube and Instagram users compared to previous years, according to the recently released report. By August 2014, YouTube had an active user base of 7.2m, making it second only to Facebook’s 11.8m in social networks in South Africa. Instagram grew too, from 680,000 active users in 2013 to 1.1m in 2014, and while Twitter’s previously dramatic rise slowed down, it still grew by 20 per cent on the previous year to 6.6m users. LinkedIn rocketed by 40 per cent, to 3.8m.

“We’re seeing the beginning of the visual revolution in online usage in South Africa,” says Arthur Goldstuck, who heads up WWW. “The global rise of video is now making itself felt here. Once the cost of mobile data comes down for the emerging smartphone market, video will become a dominant medium, strongly supported by other visual media.” 

As the fires spread, casting a smoky pall over large parts of the southern areas of Cape Town and threatening lives and property, people took to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, bypassing traditional media, to share what they were witnessing in real time.

Much of the drama crystallised around the #capefires hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

With newsrooms overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the fires, social media became the go-to place for many people wanting to keep up with the news as people, many of them close to the fire line, posted video content like this, this, and this.

The media was quick to latch on to this great source of dramatic – and free – user generated content; but it also exposed a potential pitfall as some pictures unrelated to the fire started doing the rounds on social media, like this one which was from the devastating 2000 fires. There were also several examples of misleading reports on social media that were picked up by larger media outlets, as this blogger revealed

Fake fire Twitter ()

What this highlighted is the need for newsrooms to do proper verification of social media content before using or sharing it. Equally important is the need to properly attribute the creators of social media content and ensure that that their copyright is not breached.

The fires were also an opportunity for local media to show off their multimedia reporting skills, like this view of the blazes from a fire fighting pilot’s vantage point, dramatic reportage from the fire line by Eyewitness News‘ Thomas Holder and this stunning multimedia wrap of the fires and the devastation they left behind in their wake.

One of the more innovative reports was by News24, which used a drone to record the aftermath of the fires in areas that would have otherwise been difficult to photograph or video.

There were also some excellent infographics like this one from News24, which gave a simple overview of the fire by numbers. And this simple-to-use tool that allowed users in South Africa and several different foreign cities to type in their address and see an overlay of the area devastated by the fire in relation to their own neighbourhood.

Ironically, Cape Town’s indigenous flora needs fire to reproduce, the flames scattering seeds far and wide and also activating seeds buried as food by animals. This story by Africa Geographic reported how, a week after the flames were extinguished, signs of new life were springing up among the ashes.

The biggest lesson media took away from the fires was how rich a source of content social media could be in helping compliment the reportage of stretched newsrooms.

They also ended up with rich archives of videos and pictures from what was probably the best-covered fire in the city’s history – in large part thanks to the army of citizen reporters on the ground.

More like this

Media and tech innovation in Africa: what’s the story?

Open data movement sees Africa’s media seizing new opportunities

Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x