The African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI) factory, one of South Africa’s major chemical companies, is located just SW of Somerset West, and about 40 minutes driving from Cape Town. West of this factory the community of Macassar is situated, one of a string of settlements, scattered all over the Cape flats on the way to the centre of Cape Town city, but most important, directly in the path of the dominant SE winds that normally prevail in this area during the summer months.
Saturday 17 December 1995 was no exception, and a strong SE wind came howling from the Hottentot Hollands’ Mountains, over the AECI factory. The landscape is mainly covered by fynbos (a macchia-type vegetation), with a strong Acacia longifolia component.
There is no evidence how the bushfire started, but the fire had been raging in the area close to AECI for a number of days; and there may even have been a number of fires, as this time of the year arson is common on the Cape flats. However, with no direct evidence regarding the cause of the fire at this stage, the fire actually jumped over the fence between the open bushland and a heap of sulphur of 15,000 tons. At ca. 19:30 hrs the sulphur heap caught fire. A large smoke plume containing toxic sulphur compounds was driven by the SE wind to the area in the northeast of the sulphur storage compound.
The fire raged over an area of half a football field, and bulldozers, fire trucks and two Oryx helicopters from the South African Air Force were rushed to the site, attempting to contain the fire which was finally extinguished the next day.
Chaos erupted that Saturday night when inhabitants of neighbouring communities, particularly Deepfreeze and Brandwag which are located only 1 km away from the fire site, were overwhelmed by the fumes. At that time of night many people were already in bed. Approximately 2500 people had to be evacuated from the area in a hurry, in all sorts of possible means of transport, and by 03:30 hrs the next morning there were still 500 patients in the trauma unit of the closest hospital while two persons had died due to sever respiratory problems. Police teams equipped with gas masks had to transport hundreds of people to hospital for treatment, and even inhabitants of communities as far as Stellenbosch, Somerset West and Kuils River had burning throats and eyes.
There is a possibility that agricultural crops might be affected seriously as well, as crumbling of leaves has been noted immediately after the fire. Obviously this could give rise to all sorts of aftermath complications, although life had basically returned to normal by late Sunday.
The two Oryx helicopters did an excellent job with their buckets, delivering 447,000 litres of water during seven hours of flying, contributing significantly to the success of containing the fire and eventually putting it out; by 13:00 hrs on Sunday 18 December the fire was completely under control.
AECI has admitted that fire protection was inadequate, and an independent court of enquiry has been requested to investigate the unfortunate happening. The company has already promised to handle any claims in connection with fire losses favourably.
From: Neels De Ronde Address: SILVA Forest Services du Toit Street 16 P.O.Box 612 ZA – 7280 Bredasdorp SOUTH AFRICA