Residents of posh estate flee fires

Residents of posh estate flee fires

23 February 2009

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South Africa — Raging fires were causing chaos today, with a large luxury housing estate evacuated at midnight, at the height of a battering south-easter.

The night of drama was the latest episode in the series of fires which began in Jonkershoek on February 4 and has been ravaging mountains and farms between Stellenbosch, Somerset West and Sir Lowry’s Pass for almost three weeks.

The latest flare-up began on Vergelegen Estate yesterday, as a benign southerly wind switched at dusk to a powerful south-easter, pouring down the Hottentots Holland mountains into the Helderberg Basin.

Shortly before midnight, the fire unexpectedly surged south from Vergelegen, heading directly for the upmarket Wedderwill Estate, home to dozens of multimillion- rand homes and smallholdings.

The entire estate was evacuated in chaotic scenes in the high winds, as the fire burned through the property – with queues of cars leaving the area loaded with key belongings.

“I was ordered off very politely but very firmly by a senior fire officer,” reported Max Ellwood, a resident who serves on the local fire protection association. Ellwood believes arson is to blame.

At 8.15am today, the estate remained largely empty and the fire still burned.

A staffer at the thatched Lala Panzi lodge cried down the telephone line: “The lodge is burning down – I can’t speak now!”

Ellwood said lodge had already lost its vineyards.

Another resident reported: “It’s like a bit of a moonscape here this morning.”

It is understood, however, that firefighters managed to save all the estate’s houses.

Game animals at a private reserve, which forms part of Wedderwill, were also reported to have found refuge – including eland, zebra, wildebeest and springbok.

Ellwood said he hoped the animals had managed to find a way down to a green pasture next to neighbouring Knorhoek, where they would be safe.

While the fire was racing between houses, the flames set off on a new flank, heading towards two wine farms, Mount Rozier and Waterkloof.

Almost simultaneously, the fire flared up again at Lourensford and threatened the farm’s large saw-mill and surrounding buildings.

Today, four helicopters from Working on Fire, the SA Air Force and the Table Mountain National Park were water-bombing, guided by a spotter plane, but hampered both by high winds and poor visibility caused by thick smoke.

A giant pall of smoke stretched more than 50km this morning from Somerset West into the City Bowl, while much of Somerset West was coated in ash.

Cape Town city fire services confirmed the smoke hanging over Cape Town today had drifted in over the city on light winds from Somerset West.

“We have no other fires on our system. That one is the only one and it required the deployment of a large number of units,” a control room duty officer said this morning.

Ellwood praised firefighters.

“These men deserve a tremendous amount of praise,” he said.

He and others in the fire protection association were “convinced that it was clearly arson”.

He said last week’s fires, which began five days after the Jonkershoek blaze was contained and extinguished, had begun with four fires which had “exploded” on the face of the Helderberg within 20 minutes of each other.

“I don’t know who the nutcase is. But I think a lot of people would like to lay their hands on him,” he said.

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