South Africa — At least 14 people have been killed and 59 injured in a spate of runaway fires in KwaZulu-Natal over the weekend.
KwaZulu-Natal’s local government MEC, Mike Mabuyakhulu said on Monday afternoon that “a total number of 636 households were affected”.
The fires were worst in the province’s uThungulu district which includes the municipalities of uMhlathuze (Richards Bay), uMlalazi (Eshowe), Nkandla, Mbonambi, Ntambanana and Mthonjaneni (Melmoth).
Mabuyakhulu said that of the 59 people reported to have sustained injuries as a result of the fires, at least 45 were from the uThungulu district, whilst 10 of those who died were also from the district.
Three of those who died were from the Umkhanyakude district, while one person was reported to have died in the Sisonke (Kokstad) district.
“The hardest hit areas are the municipalities of Nkandla, Mthonjaneni and uMlalazi. The preliminary assessment indicates that the total loss is estimated to run into millions of rands.”
Mabuyakhulu said strong winds had hampered fire-fighting operations during the weekend. The winds had prevented many of the province’s fire fighting helicopters and planes from taking off.
Fires under control by Monday
He could not confirm whether the winds had played a role in the crash of a fire bombing plane on Saturday evening.
By Monday afternoon most of the fires were under control. Despite this, the province remained on full alert.
Emergency services were sending food, medical care and temporary shelters to the affected areas.
KwaZulu-Natal premier Sibusiso Ndebele, the agriculture MEC Mtholephi Mthimkulu, social welfare MEC Meshack Radebe and the province’s director-general Kwazi Mnagngwa visited the affected areas on Monday afternoon.
“The main purpose of the visit is for the provincial government to ascertain first-hand the extent of the damage caused and to ensure that the necessary assistance is provided to the affected communities,” Ndebele’s spokesperson Logan Maistry said in a statement.
Mabuyakhulu said it was too early to determine the cause of the various blazes, but he ruled out lightning.
“We think these fires were all caused by human errors. None of us can tell whether it was a deliberate act. We are not speculating that it is arson,” he said.
He said police would be called in to investigate the cause of the fires and determine blame.
Wind died down
Earlier, operations manager for Rural Metro, Dave Whitaker, said the wind had died down overnight, allowing firefighters to gain the upperhand. He said it was still early to estimate the damage caused in the uThungulu district.
“I cannot even begin to tell you how many homes have been lost,” he said.
Melmoth Protection Services officer Derek Horne said that fires in the area had been brought under control in the early hours of Monday morning. The smoke had abated and there was a cold wind in the area.
On Sunday evening motorists had been warned to avoid using the R66 and R34 roads. Horne said the warning had been lifted and that there were no fires near the roads.
In a statement on Monday, Zululand Mayor Veronica KaMagwaza-Msibi said at least 225 households and also grazing land had been destroyed throughout their district, which includes Nongoma, Ulundi, Phongola, Edumbe and Vryheid.
As a result, more than 1200 people had been displaced by fires that had started since midday on Sunday.
KaMagwaza-Msibi said the disaster management team would set up tents and provide blankets and food parcels to the affected families.