South Africa — South African retail tycoon Christo Wiese watched helplessly as vineyards, fruit orchards and pine trees worth about R30-million went up in smoke when fire scorched parts of his acclaimed wine estate.
The chairman of Pepkor and owner of Lourensford Wine Estate is among scores of Western Cape property owners picking up the pieces after fires in the Somerset West region, near Cape Town, raged for almost a month.
Thousands of fires have broken out in and around Cape Town since the start of the year, destroying property and vast stretches of land.
One fire, which started on February 4 and was still smouldering this week, wreaked havoc on three prime wine estates Lourensford, Vergelegen and Wedderwill.
The damage to the three estates is estimated at R40.5-million.
While some of the countrys elite were assessing their losses, experts said the damage could have been minimised if bigger helicopters had been used by the government-funded organisation Working on Fire to fight the flames.
The fire scorched about 1500ha of Wieses property.
I bought the farm in 1998. It cost me an awful lot of money… refurbishing the farm to redevelop it, he said. It is always sad to see such a beautiful place scarred by fire, but within a year or two, when the winter rains come and the fynbos has grown again, those scars will be largely obliterated.
Lourensford, the largest wine estate in the country, has won several national and international awards for its wines. It also boasts the largest privately owned wine cellar in the country, with a capacity of 5000 tons or approximately four million bottles.
Lourensfords production manager, Barry Humby, said a million pine trees had been lost, which made up about 95% of its plantation.
We also lost 40 000 of our trout a huge portion of our fish farm harvest. Four hectares of vineyards and fruit orchards were badly damaged. The total value could be between R25-million and R30-million, he said.
Don Tooth, managing director of Vergelegen, which is owned by mining giant Anglo American, estimated that the inferno had caused between R5-million and R10-million damage.
About five hectares of vineyards were affected by the heat and will probably have to be replanted, but a detailed investigation of the impact of both heat and smoke (on the remaining crop) is being conducted, he said.
Tooth said Anglo chief executive Cynthia Carroll knew about the blaze but had been unable to visit the farm. He added that she had been very supportive of efforts to bring the blaze under control.
Wolfgang von Loeper, general manager of Wedderwill Wine Estate, said damages amounted to about R400 000. The 390ha biodiversity estate incorporates a wine estate, game reserve and residential estate.
While the fires raged, Working on Fire which was launched by government to fight veld fires was locked in a dispute with UT Air South Africa.
The company is contracted by the organisation to supply helicopters for wildfire-fighting duties.
But UT Air director Vladimir Koval said its Russian helicopter, an MI-8 MTV capable of lifting more than three tons of water at a time, had been grounded as a result of non-payment.
The helicopter was damaged in an earlier operation, but Koval refused to have it fixed or send a replacement.
Huey helicopters belonging to Working on Fire and Oryx helicopters of the South African National Defence Force were used to water-bomb the flames. Hueys can lift up to 1000 litres of water, and the Oryx up to 2000 litres.
Working on Fire head Johan Heine said: During the recent fires in the Western Cape, the MI-8 MTV helicopter hired from UT Air developed gearbox problems. Spares were ordered from Russia. During this time, due to an administrative oversight, there were unexpected delays in payment from Working on Fire to UT Air.
Koval said this week that millions had since been paid to his company. He said experts believed such a powerful aircraft could have brought the fires under control much sooner.
Martin Steynberg, chief executive of Titan Helicopters, said the Russian aircraft could fly in bad weather conditions, carrying three times more water than a Huey.
I am sure that with the right helicopters the fire could have been brought under control quicker. Ive never seen a fire burn for so long.
Last year Steynberg cancelled his contract with Working on Fire owing to non-payment. He said the organisation still owed his company R500 000 and was R8-million in arrears at one stage.
Asked whether the MI-8 MTV would have made a difference, Cape Town fire chief Ian Schnetler said: Any other form of aerial support would have been useful.
Phillip Prins, fire manager of Table Mountain National Park, said: We use the big helicopter because it carries more water at a time and it can fly in gale-force winds, something a Huey cannot do.
The park has cut ties with Working on Fire, but Prins would not give reasons for this decision.
Dean Ferreira, manging director of the Nature Conservation Corporation, which was contracted by Vergelegen Wine Estate to battle the flames, believes the helicopters used were not effective enough to fight the fires.