Johannesburg, South Africa — Wildfires began claiming lives — both human and animal — on Monday as they ran unabated across the hot, dry countryside, fanned by heavy winds.
A six-year-old girl, Bonakele Ngema, burnt to death in a house where she was trapped while seeking refuge from a roaring blaze that bore down on her in Mntanenkosi reserve, KwaZulu-Natal.
At least one other person died in KwaZulu-Natal and hundreds of families were left homeless when their houses were destroyed by fire and bad weather over the weekend.
Prisoners at Mbazwana police station in KwaZulu-Natal had to be evacuated to Emanguzi police station, while police officers used buckets of water to fight a forest fire threatening the building. Three vehicles were burnt out.
In Limpopo, an unnamed 53-year-old farmer died when the helicopter from which he was assessing a fierce blaze on his farm was caught by swirling winds and crashed.
Young elephants ‘burnt all over’ People and property were not the fires’ only victims.
Three elephants — aged two, seven and 15 — had to be destroyed after being badly burnt in a fire at the Pilanesberg National Park, in the North West province.
Another 14 elephants, all aged under 10, have been captured and are being cared for, the park’s manager, Peter Leitner, said on Monday.
The fire, which started outside the park last Tuesday, took two days to bring under control, he said. It destroyed 5 000ha to 6 000ha.
Assessing the damage from a helicopter on Friday was the saddest sight he had seen in 20 years on the job, said Leitner.
“Young, abandoned elephant, burnt all over, standing alone in the veld, just too painful to walk.”
The younger animals were most susceptible to fire because of their size and the sensitivity of their skins. The adults were mainly burnt on their backs and heads as they tried to protect the little ones. Although many did not appear to be burned, it was clear when they walked that they had stood on hot coals.
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) senior inspector Rick Allan said that although more than 40 farms were affected by runaway fires in the Free State, no livestock appear to have been injured.
However, two springbok had to be put down when fire moved through their 50m-by-100m enclosure on a farm in the province.
“They couldn’t get away. [The fire] burnt their underbellies,” said Allan. They were found right up against the fence of the encampment, he said.
The NSPCA also has inspectors assessing the situation in Piet Retief and Cape Town and will be ready to send teams out to help on Tuesday, said spokesperson Del Jones.
Code ‘red’ With weather conditions coded “red” under the National Fire Danger Rating System, a mere spark could set off a major blaze, said the public-private firefighting organisation Working on Fire’s (WOF) spokesperson Val Charlton.
Fires were raging in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Free State and firefighters were on standby in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape on Monday amid fears that the blazes could spread.
“With the exception of the Free State, all the fires are in forested areas. There has been millions of rands’ worth of damage,” she said.
Nine fires burning in central Zululand on Sunday night were brought under control, said Charlton, adding that the cooler weather moving in should bring relief to exhausted firefighters.
Firefighters battled 20 fires in the Richards Bay and St Lucia areas in KwaZulu-Natal on Saturday and 15 on Sunday.
In KwaZulu-Natal, tents, blankets, plastic sheeting and other emergency relief supplies — worth R600 000 — have been distributed to affected communities, said local government, housing and traditional affairs ministry spokesperson Lennox Mabaso.
Severe lightning and forest bee-removers are being blamed for the fires in Limpopo. The causes of the other blazes are not known.
Two fires in Tzaneen, Limpopo, are under control, but three in Mpumalanga continue to burn uncontrolled.
In the Free State, although under control, a fire in Rosendal is still burning in inaccessible areas and along a long front. The burnt area is estimated at 12 000ha. A fire at the Willem Pretorius Reserve has been extinguished.
Land owners and the general public have been asked to avoid lighting fires and to ensure open cooking fires are not left unattended at any time.