New wildfire threat

New wildfire threat

5 February 2009

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South Africa — The Weather Bureau issued a dire warning on Thursday that the heat and high winds predicted for Thursday will create perfect conditions for runaway fires in the Western Cape.

The Cape metropole, south-west coast and Winelands areas are under severe threat after several fires, including a raging mountain blaze in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve at Stellenbosch, threatened properties yesterday.

The fire chief for the City of Cape Town, Ian Schnettler, said his teams had fought 77 fires across the city on Wednesday, as well as assisting neighbouring municipalities, such as Stellenbosch.

The most powerful south-easter of the year continued to wreak havoc today by fanning huge fires on Stellenbosch’s doorstep and outside Hermanus, matched by scorching temperatures expected to last into the weekend.

Wind speeds peaked at at 120km/h at Cape Point at 4am today. The wind has battered Cape Town and outlying towns since on Wednesday.

Dawn broke with temperatures of up to 32°C forecast in the city and 36°C in Paarl – the mix of extremely hot and dry conditions most conducive to runaway fires.

The wind was expected to remain strong in the city today and fresh to strong along the coastal areas, forecaster Luthando Masimini said.

In the interior, it was expected to be moderate to fresh.

In Stellenbosch, a fire which began deep in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve surged towards the university town late on Wednesday afternoon, scorching the edges of the sprawling Coetzenburg sports complex.

Several smallholdings and homes were evacuated as the fire swept along on the southern bank of the Eerste River, a stone’s-throw from hundreds of multimillion-rand homes downstream from the five-star Lanzerac hotel.

Late on Wednesday night, Stellenbosch’s streets were filled by throngs of students who had made their way to Coetzenberg, many offering to help quell the flames.

At one stage, the roof of a large gymnasium caught fire, but this was extinguished before the flames could spread to the building’s rafters and gut the centre.

Students were breathing through wet T-shirts to protect their eyes and airways.

The entire side of the 1 167m Stellenbosch mountain above the town burned throughout the night.

Thick, choking smoke engulfed the town, leaving thousands of residents in discomfort throughout the night.

A planned international hockey match between South Africa and Germany, which was to have been played on Astroturf at Coetzenberg, was hastily postponed.

At dawn on Thursday, four helicopters took to the skies to water-bomb the flames, which still burned high on the Stellenbosch mountain and in the direction of Blaauwklippen road towards Somerset West.

“It is going a lot better today than it did yesterday (Wednesday),” said Stellenbosch fire chief Lizaan Morta on Thursday morning.

“We were terribly stretched yesterday. When this fire broke out, we had three other big fires to contend with and the Cape Winelands fire department had four.”

Further north on the R44, a fire burned in the vicinity of the N1 near the tourist attraction Butterfly World.

And in Hermanus, Overberg fire chief Reinhard Geldenhuys reported that teams were still fighting the six-day-old fire in the mountains towards Stanford.

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