The most devastating mountain fire in the Cape Peninsula in fiveyears has swept across the mountain slopes above Muizenberg, Lakeside, Westlake,Steenberg and Tokai, destroying three homes and forcing the evacuation ofhundreds of people.
One of the buildings gutted was a thatched R15-million mansion on the exclusiveSilwersteen Estate which had a brand new BMW and an Audi parked in the garage.The owner, Rashied Jassat, is on hajj in Mecca. Firefighters worked through the night in a bid to dampen the flames, battlingagainst the galeforce south-easterly, and by 8am the major threat had beenaverted and no further homes were at risk.
Flying sparks: The most devastating mountain fire in theCape Peninsula in five years sweeps across Table Mountain. Photo: Brenton Geach, Cape Argus
A strong stench of burnt vegetation hung in the air The wind, although still blowing, had also abated. The 240 firefighters and 25 vehicles on duty early on Friday, some from as farafield as Blaauwberg, were concentrating their efforts on a dense patch of bushand trees at the top end of the Steenberg Estate where it meets the Tokaiplantation below Silvermine.
Four firefighting helicopters were at work here, waterbombing the bush withwater scooped from nearby Sandvlei, but were called off soon after 8am. All major roads in the area were open and traffic was flowing normally. One of the worst affected areas was the Oude Raapkraal complex just behind theWestlake Golf Course where the fire destroyed two cottages. ‘He said they were going to chip the bushes but nothing happened’ Other buildings destroyed by the fire included a guardhouse at Silwersteen, two council buildings at Westlake, a store and an office. The Oude Raapkraal complex is occupied by members of the extended Lello familywho have lived there since 1947. They were out early on Friday assessing the damage.
Down at Lakeside fire station, the joint operations centre, a group of red-eyedfirefighters and volunteers gathered at dawn on Friday. As in the major fires five years ago, local businesses and residents had donatedfood and drink and made sandwiches for the firefighters. An ambulance stood by to treat the firefighters with eye complaints and thosesuffering from exhaustion. As the sun came up a thick layer of black soot on cars and garden walls and theroofs of houses was clearly visible. A strong stench of burnt vegetation hung in the air. The fire started about 1pm just off Boyes Drive in Peck’s Valley aboveMuizenberg. Table Mountain National Park staff said it appeared to have been caused by acigarette tossed from a car and ignited by a “black south-easter”gale. The flames spread rapidly through the tinder-dry fynbos.
At least 65 firefighters, including at least 28 of the National Park’s volunteerfirefighting force, were rushed to fight the blaze, as were the two Working onFire (www.workingonfire.org)firefighting helicopters from Newlands and a smaller private chopperoperated by Base 4, a private company.
But driven by the wind, the fire sped across the mountain, blackening LakesidePinnacle and burning below Boyes Drive at places. It then sped across the mountain near Silvermine, and jumped Ou Kaapse Weg andburnt through part of the Silvermine reserve that was last burnt just five yearsago. By 9pm it was threatening homes and plantations in the Tokai area. The head of the city’s emergency services Wynand Wessels confirmed that publicaddress systems had been used to order people to evacuate houses in Lakeside,Steenberg and upper Tokai. Firefighters included staff and volunteers from the national park, the nationalWorking on Fire programme, and SA Navy personnel after the fire moved on to theSilvermine base. On Thursday night, MTO Forestry (formerly Safcol) firefighters were also due tojoin in the battle to help protect the residential area and the pine plantationsabove Zwaanswyk Road. Firefighters were hampered by the fierce wind and extreme heat. Flying conditions for the fire-fighting helicopters were also difficult, withthe strong wind, dense smoke and south-easter cloud which covered the mountainby late afternoon, making water-bombing extremely tricky. The fire caused major traffic jams. Boyes Drive was closed early, and traffic backed up along Main Road. Steenberg Road was also closed to traffic in the late afternoon, while OuKaapseweg was cordoned off later. Several people living immediately behind the Westlake Golf Course were highlycritical of the developer of the planned Stone Village housing estate behindtheir property and around the navy’s Silvermine complex. The development is owned by Tokyo Sexwale’s Mvelapanda Group. Contractors of the developers had cut down invasive alien vegetation just beforeChristmas but had left the dead bushes lying there just behind their border. Oude Raapkraal resident Brendan Ashley-Cooper said: “I spoke to the guy andtold him I was very concerned. “He said they were going to chip the bushes but nothing happened. “I also phoned the fire safety people at Wynberg Police Station, but theydidn’t do anything,” Ashley-Cooper said.
This article was originally published on page 1 of The Cape Argus on January 14, 2005