Ninety fires in one day

Ninety fires in one day

7 February 2009

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South Africa — An uncontrolled fire in Algeria in the Cederberg engulfed a church, a school, and a house yesterday and the municipality was battling to source helicopters to waterbomb the flames.

However, the chance of them getting air support was nil as all firefighting helicopters in the region were busy at other blazes and by nightfall they had been sent back to their bases because of failing light.

The CapeNature office in Algeria and a farmhouse in Moutonshoek, near Piketberg, were both razed.

Fires, fanned by gale-force winds, raged in the Winelands, Overberg, the West Coast and the Cape Town metropole on Friday afternoon and all available fire-fighting resources were dispatched, with teams working across municipal boundaries.

Cape Town fire control platoon commander Clive Smidt said between 7am yesterday morning and nightfall they recorded 90 fires in the city limits.

Firemen put in overtime and were stretched, but coping, Smidt said.

Late on Friday four fire tenders were battling a fire in Philadelphia near Melkbos, while earlier in the day the Bellville Municipal dump near the Cape University of Technology was on fire, and they were battling fires near the Tygerberg Zoo, in the Strand, near Monwabisi and a veld fire close to Blikkiesdorp in Delft Last night

Provincial disaster and fire brigade manager Schalk Carsten said they had called in the South African Defence Force for help when the fire situation appeared out of control.

Carsten said they called on the military when faced with “extraordinary situations”.

The army sent in three helicopters to help fight the blazes.

One was sent to the Hermanus fire, which had been burning all week and was eventually extinguished late on Friday afternoon.

Two were sent to help with the Stellenbosch fire.

Hundreds of firemen, Working On Fire staff, CapeNature fire fighters and farm workers were battling to control the fires, which Carstens said were dangerous.

Up the West Coast, exhausted firefighters, farmers and farmworkers were protecting farmlands and vineyards as best they could as the uncontrolled fire swept through Piketberg, Moutonshoek, the Cederberg and Redlingshuys.

One man lost everything.

Johannes Coetzee, who had been fighting the fire for 24 hours, said he had lost 20 hectares of grapes which he had been busy harvesting and 20 hectares of oranges, which would have been harvested through the winter.

“I lost all my irrigation pipes and rye grazing veld for my sheep and cows. The rye will only grow back in winter,” Coetzee said.

Tractors and trucks were being used to transport firefighters from one flare-up to another in 40°C heat during the day.

On Friday night the landscape looked surreal with a red moon glaring through the thick smoke. The peaks, kloofs and cliffs surrounding the valley were all burning, with an estimated 20 000 hectares believed to have been lost.

A joint operational centre was set up at a primary school.

Moutonshoek farmer Henri Horne said the fire, which started on Thursday at Captain’s Kloof, swept across the mountain into the Moutonshoek valley where it was contained overnight.

“This morning it flared up again,” he said.

Horne and about 20 firefighters and farmers using fire hoses and beaters fought the fire yesterday afternoon. Jumping back into their vehicles, the group raced up a farm road to a line of flames 500 metres long and 10m high which was moving through dense fynbos on a mountain slope.

About 12km north to Moutons-hoek another line of fire, at least a kilometre long and at least 10 metres high, burnt in the direction of Redlingshuys, fueled by a strong north-easterly Berg wind.

Fireighters in Moutonshoek said a horse paddock had been threatened by the fire. Another team of firefighters were on the ground to protect the property.

Coetzee’s house was not burnt down but another farmhouse was.

Firefighters said at least one farm worker’s cottage burnt down.

Poor visibility forced the closure of the Niewoudspass on the N7, near Algeria.

Ninety fires were reported within the city limits on Friday, while the raging Stellenbosch fire, the second one this week, crested the mountain into Somerset West and onto the Lourensford Wine Estate.

The fire started on Thursday night below Tokara wine estate on Helshoogte Pass. Farm workers, firefighters and helicopters were battling the blaze.

Staff at the Vergelegen wine estate, which neighbours Lourensford, were on standby in the event of the flames reaching them.

Sharon Hosking, who works at Vergelegen, said the fire had forked, with one arm going to Lourensford and the second moving around the top of the cliff- face facing Vergelegen.

Cape Winelands fire chief Wayne Josias said the fire was burning “more furiously” and had reached the western side of the mountain to Lourensford, Mount Fleur and Brandwagt.

Jackson Rikhotso, the provincial deputy director for disaster preparedness, said municipalities were working together, redirecting fire fighters to where they were needed the most.

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