Three die in Cape’s fires

Three die in Cape’s fires

8 December 2008

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South Africa — Three people died in shack fires around Cape Town at the weekend, while the first major mountain fire of the summer has hit the heart of the Cape floral kingdom – the Unesco-registered Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve – as it continues to rage through the mountains above Gordon’s Bay.

Three people died in separate incidents when fires destroyed their homes in informal settlements. The fatalities included:

  • A 46-year-old woman who burnt to death after a fire broke out and destroyed several shacks in the Freedom Farm informal settlement near Cape Town International Airport on Saturday.
  • A man who died early yesterday when six shacks burnt down in Never-Never in Symphony Way, Philippi. Here, 20 people were left homeless.
  • A five-year-old boy who was killed on Sunday in the early hours of the morning when four shacks were gutted in Soli Town in Strand. A further 12 people were left destitute.

    Also on Sunday, at 8pm, one shack was destroyed, leaving three destitute in Fisantekraal, Durbanville.

    A man suffered 60 percent burn wounds in the blaze.

    At least 200 people have been left homeless in the wake of the fires in informal settlements.

    The blaze above Gordon’s Bay began on Saturday night and immediately threatened tourist sites in the Elgin Valley.

    Large tracts of fynbos were burnt and early today, smoke from the fire hung like a haze over Cape Town, as far as Table Bay and Table View.

    Orchards were scorched in the Elgin and Grabouw areas, but damage to commercial interests was minimal and no infrastructure was destroyed, said Overberg fire chief Reinard Geldenhuys.

    The fynbos areas were mostly 12 to 13 years old and ready to burn, he said.

    At Buttonquail Private Nature Reserve, the flames sped towards the reserve’s luxury tented camp, but was mercifully arrested by the Palmiet River.

    The reserve’s owners, volunteers from Mofam River Lodge and farmers and workers from neighbouring fruit farms fought throughout Saturday night and the whole of Sunday to try to keep the fire from leaping the river and raging into the Elgin valley’s productive fruit and wine farms.

    Buttonquail owner Ralph Garlick said: “We fought side by side all night. We are black and blue.”

    Garlick and his team also saved an indigenous forest estimated to be hundreds of years old.

    “Somehow the flames spared it. It was like the hand of God,” he said.

    Firefighters from the valley, Overberg fire services and Cape Nature managed to keep the flames from Elgin valley’s orchards, but fierce south-easterly winds fanned the fire and drove it in a north-westerly towards the Steenbras dam catchment area.

    Geldenhuys said a major fire in 2006 had left a long strip of fynbos with only virgin growth.

    This had served as a firebreak which protected another recreational facility, Mizpah youth camp, from being destroyed.

    Not spared have been more than 2 500 hectares within the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve.

    The reserve stretches over 100 000ha between the Hottentots Holland Mountains and the mountains that ring the eastern shores of False Bay between Gordon’s Bay and Kleinmond, and it enjoys formal recognition and protection from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation.

    The biosphere reserve’s Mark Johns said this morning: “It’s 13-year-old veld, which is the minimum recovery age. It’s not an ecological disaster yet. We’re hoping that all the antelope will have been able to escape to the lower areas.”

    The fire was still burning at the time of going to press today and the flames were cresting the watershed on the mountains between the Elgin valley and the coast road, Clarence Drive, with thick smoke being driven down the Steenbras River gorge.

    Firefighters are anticipating an extremely tough wildfire season in the Western Cape this summer with an increasing number of runaway blazes driven by what is predicted to be exceptionally hot and dry weather.

    Working on Fire (WoF) teams who enjoyed only a brief respite after a hectic winter fire season in the north-eastern parts of the country, such as Mpumalanga, Limpopo and northern KwaZulu-Natal, have been thrown headlong into the Western Cape’s summer fire season.

    The organisation’s “Wildland firefighters” were deployed to assist in putting out 737 wildfires that burnt across 236 000-plus hectares of veld and forest between May and November. August was their busiest month, with teams being dispatched on 203 occasions.

    WoF general manager Johan Heine said the firefighters had at times been forced to work back-to-back shifts.

    Weather forecasts showed the province was entering a five-year-phase of longer, wetter winters with windier, drier summers that meant more wild fires.

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