South Africa: Fires in the Southern Cape Peninsula, Western Cape Province, South Africa January 2000 (IFFN No. 22 -April 2000)

Fires in the Southern Cape Peninsula, Western Cape Province,
South Africa January 2000

(IFFN No. 22 -April 2000, p. 69-75)


This paper describes the fires that occurred in the southern Cape Peninsula from January 16 to 20 January 2000. It is not a comprehensive analysis and its scope is limited. We have combined first-hand observations, media accounts, and official statements to create a description of the fires. In addition, we have used 30 years of fire management experience in California and the Northwest United States to indicate where similar problems and solutions exist.


For Cape Town and the surrounding area, it was an extraordinary week. Every day the newspaper headlines shouted in gigantic block letters: Hout Bay Wildfire, Mountains of Fire, and Burning Shores. The fires were so intense and extensive, that the shores did actually burn. It was a-once-in-a-century event that left a large percentage of natural vegetation burnt, homes destroyed, meager firefighting resources exhausted, and the public demanding answers. For us, new arrivals to South Africa, it brought back childhood memories of sitting on the roofs of our Southern California homes on warm evenings watching fire burn through the chaparral-covered hills. Ironically, it would later be us on those hills fighting the fires.

A few available figures help complete the image of the week:

  • Fires in the South Peninsula Municipality burnt over 8,000 ha, 20% of the natural vegetation
  • Other fires in the province burned over 10,000 ha and were especially damaging to vineyards in the Stellenbosch area, the farming region around Tulbagh, and the West Coast National Park
  • The total cost of the suppression effort so far is estimated at $US 3 million
  • The insurance industry expects over $US 1/2 billion in damage claims
  • The Cape Metropolitan area was declared a disaster area
  • Over 70 houses were damaged or destroyed
  • Over 200 shacks were razed near in informal settlement areas east of Cape Town
  • More than 1,200 firefighters, including members of the police, defence force, metro emergency services, local municipality, professional firefighting organizations, and volunteers fought the fire


The Cape Peninsula has a 50-kilometer chain of rugged mountains, broken by small coastal valleys. These mountains, composed of pale sandstone, extend southwards from Table Mountain hovering over downtown Cape Town towards Cape Point at the tip of the peninsula. The Cape Peninsula National Park encompasses the major mountain ranges on the Peninsula.

Hout Bay, a small coastal community about 20 kilometres south of Cape Town, is surrounded by mountains: Table Mountain to the north, the peaks of Vlakkenberg and Constantiaberg to the east, and Chapman’s Peak to the south. The mountains are steep and rugged, abruptly dropping in dramatic fashion into the ocean along Chapman’s Peak Drive, which connects Hout Bay to the southern peninsula. Silvermine Reserve, where the first major fire started, lies behind Constantiaberg to the east of Hout Bay.

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Simon’s Town, site of the second major fire, sits more than halfway down the Cape Peninsula on the more sheltered east side overlooking False Bay. This area lacks the drama of the more mountainous northern half of the peninsula. A smaller, less rugged central mountain range drops down to the coastal roads on either side of the peninsula; these two roads are the only access in and out of the peninsula for coastal communities.

Environmental Conditions


The Cape floral kingdom is the richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms, with a species density unmatched anywhere else on earth. Over 2,600 species of flowering plants grow in this area. The predominant vegetation type in the Western Cape is mountain fynbos (‘fine bush’, derived from fine leaves of ericas that typify this vegetation), growing on well-leached, infertile soils derived from sandstone and in some cases, granite and shale. Fynbos consists mainly of knee-high heaths and reeds, interspersed with taller proteas.

The greatest threat to mountain fynbos comes from over 300 alien species that have been introduced to the Peninsula. Some of these invasive plants, such as pines and eucalyptus, produce more than 300 percent more heat output than natural fynbos during fires.

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Fire is the lifeblood of natural fynbos vegetation, which must be burned between six and 45 years, depending on fuel load, in order to sustain its plant species. Almost all fynbos plants are dependent on fire for successful reproduction.

Many fynbos species store their fruit in fire-safe cones and only release seeds after a fire. By waiting for fires to release their seeds, fynbos plants ensure that more seeds will germinate and survive with less competition from adult plants and grazing rodents. Ash provides a rich mixture of nutrients for the seedlings to grow in. Some fynbos also resprout from buds that are protected from fires by soil or thick bark.

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Fynbos is susceptible to frequent and /or exceptionally hot fires, which can burn off all available nutrients with devastating consequences. Many fynbos plants are composed of fine branches that make effective kindling, and they also accumulate dead plant material in their canopies instead of shedding it. A few fynbos plants even contain oils in their leaves, making them highly flammable. During the hot summer months, when strong southeasterly winds blow, the fynbos is a tinderbox waiting to explode.


The Western Cape enjoys a Mediterranean-type climate: warm, dry summers and wet, temperate winters. Rainfall, varying from 200 to over 2,000 mm per year, falls mainly during the winter months. Strong southeasterly winds, known as the Cape Doctor, blow primarily during the summer months, from November to February, and sometimes bring clouds of mist which envelop the surrounding mountain summits. The blanket of mist that flows over Table Mountain is referred to as the tablecloth. Summer temperatures rarely rise above 26°C.

The month of December had been one the driest on record and many municipalities had instituted water conservation measures. The week leading up to the fires was characterized by five days of near gale force southeast winds and high temperatures. On the second day of the fire, the high temperature was 41°C, close to the all-time record for Cape Town.

Chronology of Events

Saturday 15 January

Due to dry and windy conditions, fires began to spring up in the Cape metropolitan area. Over 120 fires were reported by the end of the weekend.

Sunday 16 January

A fire started in the early afternoon along Old Cape Way in the Silvermine area and quickly spread up the slope into the Silvermine Reserve. By mid-afternoon, following the wind’s path, it reached the saddle next to Constantiaberg above Hout Bay. Pausing only briefly, it made a rapid run toward the community, driven by the gale force wind. Within 40 minutes, it had dropped about 1,000 meters and reached the first houses. Eight houses were damaged or destroyed that first night. The historic Chapman’s Peak Hotel and other local businesses were only saved through the efforts of staff and volunteers. Residents were told to evacuate in the upper areas of Hout Bay and others nearby prepared to leave. Residents at the Imizamo Yethu informal settlement camp got ready to fight the fire with buckets of water. Officials and the public seemed to be caught off-guard by the incredible speed and intensity of the fire.

To the south, another fire started at an informal settlement area above Simon’s Town and blew over the mountains to the west side of the peninsula where it threatened the communities of Scarborough and Misty Cliffs. During the night, the local fire department started evacuating people, but a two-year-old firebreak helped save houses in the area.

During the night, the Hout Bay fire spread, burning cross-slope, to the north and to the south. Residents in the communities of Hout Bay, Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Scarborough were on standby to evacuate their homes if necessary.

Monday 17 January

On Monday, a combination of high temperatures (35°C), offshore winds, and low humidity caused the major fires in the Western Cape to spread. The northern extent of the Hout Bay fire spread closer to Constantia Nek, the saddle that separates Table Mountain from the southern range of mountains, causing concern about the fire spreading to Table Mountain and populated areas to the east. The southern end of the fire spread to the outskirts of Noordhoek, a small coastal community south of Chapman’s Peak, and continued to burn in the Silvermine Reserve, where it had started on Sunday. Two Air Force Oryx helicopters dropped water on the Hout Bay fire until they were temporarily diverted to assist with the fire around Scarborough and Kommetjie.

Three helicopters, 40 firefighters and a number of volunteers worked to prevent the fire near Scarborough from burning homes. After a long battle, the flames were contained and none of the houses was damaged. The fire continued to burn into the mountains to the east of Scarborough and Kommetjie, but was no longer threatening any property.

Tuesday 18 January

Fires continued to flare up in the southern Cape Peninsula: Cape Point Nature Reserve, Kommetjie, Scarborough, Hout Bay, and Chapman’s Peak. In Noordhoek valley, three Oryx helicopters and two ground crews fought a three-kilometre fire front that moved down from the mountains and threatened houses. Residents used chainsaws to build firebreaks around their houses and moved the many horses in the area to safety.

In the evening, the fire in Hout Bay flared up again and threatened the Mandela Park squatter camp as well as affluent homes on the slopes above the camp. Parts of the camp and some houses were evacuated, though no structures were damaged.

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During the night, the area around Noordhoek exploded into flames as the fire burned across the entire length of the valley. Entire areas, including a retirement complex, were evacuated as fires burnt around houses. Residents used spades, buckets, and chainsaws to help firefighters battle the blaze.

Wednesday 19 January

On Wednesday, the temperature around Cape Town soared to 41°C, the hottest day in 34 years. The northern extent of the Hout Bay fire reached Constantia Nek. Major efforts, including water drops by three helicopters, were made to prevent the fire from crossing the road and entering the Table Mountain ecosystem. Around noon, fanned by high winds, the fire flared up and burned down the eastern slopes of the Vlakkenberg into Constantia, burning five houses and threatening the historic Groot Constantia vineyard.

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In Simon’s Town, over 20 houses were destroyed or damaged as the fire spread right through town. Not far to the south of Simon’s Town, tour buses carrying 240 people back from Cape Point were temporarily trapped when the only road was closed by the fire. North of Simon’s Town, a fire near De Gama Park caused damage to eight houses.

Fires in other parts of the Western Cape continued to burn. An immense fire about 120 kilometres north of Cape Town burned nearly 6000 hectares in the West Coast National Park. The road from Cape Town to Langebaan near the park was closed. The area north of Stellenbosch sustained substantial damage to its vineyards, with about 20% of the red wine grapes damaged. A large fire was reported near the town of Robertson, about 300 kilometres east of Cape Town.

The Western Cape provincial government declared the Cape Town metropolitan area a disaster area, and Pretoria sent additional helicopters to aid in the firefighting effort. Helicopters had so far dropped 2.6 million litres of water over four days of fires.

Thursday 20 January

Cooler temperatures and calmer winds aided firefighting efforts on the Cape Peninsula. Firefighters from Johannesburg and Pretoria were flown to Cape Town to assist in fighting the fire in the West Coast National Park that continued to burn on Thursday.

The director of the Cape Peninsula National Park reported that the two largest fires were started by people. The Hout Bay fire started next to the road outside Silvermine Reserve by a burning cigarette or match tossed out of a car window (it was presumed). The second fire started in an informal settlement area above Simon’s Town.

The Water Affairs and Forestry Minister claimed that alien vegetation, especially on private lands, was to blame for the extent and intensity of the fires.

Observations, Impressions and Potential Areas for Improvement

The purpose of the following section is to compare this fire episode with similar ones in the United States, and to draw some conclusions and solutions that may have relevance in the Western Cape.

Environmental conditions in the Western Cape, including the fires that occur here, are very similar to those in Southern California. The two areas have comparable climate, vegetation (in terms of fire), and topography. In addition, they both have significant urban-fringe problems. In 1970, large fires ravaged Southern California, killing people, destroying hundreds of homes, and damaging valuable watershed. A review by the national, state, and local governments found that the area’s emergency-response organizations were deficient in a number of key areas. Lack of coordination among the hundreds of organizations, and use of different methods and terminology were but a few of the many areas that needed to be revised and strengthened.

As a result of the 1970 fires, the U.S. Government provided direction and funding for the FireScope Project. The project’s goal was to strengthen the capability and capacity of the area’s fire protection organizations to deal with fire and other natural disasters. Its success led to increased cooperation, resource sharing, more efficient fire operations, and new fire management technologies. The Cape Peninsula fires were reminiscent of the situation in California in 1970

Organization and Coordination

There has been some criticism by both the public and local officials of the response and coordination of resources during the first few days of the Cape Peninsula fires. Poor radio communication and failure to establish a coordination center during the early phases of the fire were singled out often. Eventually a joint operations center was established and the National Disaster Center was involved. Later a few officials stated that the coordination of resources needed to be improved and that there was a lack of a disaster management plan. This is not too surprising, given the speed with which the fires escalated and changed direction. In Hout Bay, residents and officials did not initially appreciate how serious the fire was.

Coordination of resources is critical to conducting firefighting operations on this scale. Even in the U.S., a single organization cannot handle large emergencies by itself. Since 1970, cooperation among fire agencies has been strengthened so that they now work together interchangeably or under a single command. Multi-agency cooperation requires a great deal of work before the fire begins as there are barriers to overcome and procedures to work out.

In the U.S., the Incident Command System (ICS) is used as an organizational framework for managing fires and other disasters on the scene. The ICS defines a standard command structure, processes, and terminology for managing small to large incidents. Most emergency response organizations in the U.S. have adopted ICS.

The Multi-Agency Command System (MACS) complements ICS by jointly managing multiple fires. MACS determines priorities and allocation of resources among the various fires through upper level representatives of the involved organizations. ICS and MACS could easily be adapted for use in South Africa.

Firefighting Resources

Lack of resources to fight the fire was an obvious and serious problem. According to accounts, existing fire engines were old and many were out of service. Only 12 of the 15 South Peninsula engines were dispatched, and additional equipment was brought in from Cape Town, the northern suburbs, and eventually the military. In Hout Bay, open fire line adjacent to homes went unattended, most likely due to limited resource availability.

No organized ground crews were observed suppressing fire or constructing fire line. Oryx helicopters (a South African version of the French-made Puma) using Bambi buckets dropped water, often with a spotter helicopter directing them. On the fifth day of the fires, 120 personnel were flown in from Pretoria as backup.

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As a sign of the desperate need for help, a call for volunteers went out the second day of the fires. This eventually created more problems as people coming in from other areas to volunteer added to the traffic clogging the roads. In addition, volunteers without adequate training created a safety issue, and soon the request was scaled back to only locals working in non-fire positions.

There were many accounts of neighbours working together to save houses and businesses, which is not a common occurrence in the U.S. A nearby military base provided equipment and personnel to fight the fire in the West Coast National Park.

There is a need to increase the firefighting capacity and capability in the Western Cape. This includes rapid deployment of equipment and personnel, which is dependent on two essential elements: The first being an adequate supply of resources and the second being a mobilization system that can tap into resources from adjacent organizations, and if necessary, from across the country.

In order to increase the personnel available, a tiered approach, combined with training, could be used. The tiers would be:

  • Full-time Professional Forces.
  • Consisting of first responders and staff whose job is fire protection these forces would form the core of the system and would provide command and supervisory functions.

  • Reserves.
  • Trained semi-professionals who are part of full-time organized fire departments or non-fire members of land management organizations who perform fire duties when needed.

  • Military.
  • Members of the uniformed services who have been trained to perform firefighting duties.

  • Community Assistance Teams.
  • Organized and trained groups of people from the community who can perform self-help duties and assist their neighbours in the event of an emergency beyond the capacity of local emergency services.

  • Volunteers.
  • Untrained members of the public who can help in non-firefighting positions.

Fire Tactics

Most firefighting tactics used on the Cape fires were focused on structure protection, and the main fire was left to burn. This was understandable given the extent and intensity of the fire, resource availability, and steep terrain. The water-dropping Oryx helicopters were the primary and most visible means of direct attack on the fire. The helicopters were very well organized and put on impressive displays of accurate water bombing. Their targets were well chosen and indicated a knowledge of fire behaviour. The main problem with this tactic was that, due to conditions, water was ineffective and resulted in only temporarily slowing the spread of the fire. Many times, the helicopters did a good job of knocking down the fire, only to see their work overturned by the fuels quickly drying out and the fire flaring up again after they left to work on another area. Adding a whetting or fire retardant agent to the water drops would improve their effectiveness. For water drops to be effective, quick follow-up from ground crews is essential. In this case, no crews seemed to be available, and even had they been, the situation was usually too dangerous for them. The use of helicopters on fires should be reviewed to ensure that these valuable resources are used in the most effective manner.

Urban Fringe and Increased Human Presence in Natural Areas

The Western Province has a serious urban fringe problem, a disastrous mix of homes located in or adjacent to fire-prone areas of vegetation.

If these fires had occurred in the largely uninhabited range of mountains to the east of Cape Town, they would have received less attention. Instead, these fires burned through what are essentially mountain islands in a sea of populated towns, farms, and vineyards. People with the means are building homes further into the natural areas than ever before. Those without, who have come to the area looking for work, live in “informal settlement” areas of flimsy shacks, often in the middle of the bush. The effects of this are:

  • The risk of loss of life and property is greatly increased
  • Firefighters are often put in exceptionally dangerous situations as they are forced to protect property
  • Fire commanders must shift tactics toward structure protection and away from controlling the main fire
  • Potential conflicts with fire management policy, such as prescribed burning, result where public and private lands meet (such as the Cape Peninsula National Park)

The important issue is that the Western Cape is a fire-prone environment and people should learn to live in the urban fringe with this in mind. There was some criticism about the lack of preparation, such as brush clearing, on the part of homeowners. Roofs constructed of tile or metal, which are not flammable, limited the damage and spread of fire in many populated areas. In the U.S., many houses are lost due to wood roofs which easily catch fire brands. Given the same fires in the U.S., the number of houses lost could have easily been doubled.

The US has initiated a program called Fire Wise to help homeowners protect their homes through the use of fireproof plantings, fire-resistant construction materials, and other methods.

Fuels Management

The Hout Bay fire burned through an area of fynbos that had not burned in over 30 years, the upper limit of its fire cycle. The ratio of dead to live material was extremely high for fynbos. This contributed to the extreme behaviour observed as the fire moved from the upper reaches of the Silvermine Reserve down to Hout Bay and along Chapman’s Peak Drive.

Alien vegetation such as pines, bluegum trees, Australian wattles, myrtles, and hakeas contributed to very high fire line intensities and flame lengths. This created difficulty and danger for fire crews in many areas, especially in the vicinity of Constantia where homes were lost as the fire moved through the crowns of the trees. This fire, the most intense observed, was accompanied by a large convection column.

Solving the fuels management problem in the Western Cape requires an integrated approach among all landowners. First, land management objectives must be set for each area. Once done, a context would be established where compatible fuel management plans could be drawn up. These plans would establish the desired fuel loading, cost benefits, and methods of achievement.

Fire Prevention

The only fire prevention efforts observed were a few fire prevention posters located on forest roads and trailheads. Often the weather bureau would issue fire danger warnings as part of the forecast. There were no special warnings or preventative actions leading up to the fires, even tough the potential for fires was great.

It appears that fire prevention efforts need to be strengthened in the Western Cape. A number of methods can be employed, including more effective signs, special warning messages in the media during dangerous periods, school programs, and community outreach programs. The U.S. has some good examples of fire prevention programs, Smokey Bear being the most well known. An effective program in South Africa would need to consider the social context of the fire problem.


Michael Calvin and Deborah Wettlaufer
1 Park Ave.
Hout Bay
South Africa

Tel: ++27-021-790-4338
Cell: ++27-082-680-4381

Country Notes
IFFN No. 22

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