Cape Town’s Halloween fire ignited by ‘vagrants’ — SANParks

02 November 2020

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SOUTH AFRICA – About 50ha of veld burnt from Deer Park in the east to Higgovale in the west across the Table Mountain’s lower frontal slope. (Photo: Daily Maverick) Less

As Table Mountain National Park carries the cost of expensive firefighting efforts, a community group urges creating ‘broad’ buffer zones to soften the blow of a heavy human footprint.

When Our Burning Planet arrived at the scene of the Table Mountain “Halloween” fire on Sunday morning just before 8am, fire crews were tamping down hotspots still smouldering from the night before.

A nascent plume of smoke could first be seen mushrooming outward above Deer Park late Saturday afternoon. Less than an hour later, a strong southeasterly wind had driven the pall across Cape Town City Bowl, staining the sun an apocalyptic orange. Headlight beams cut across traffic as sirens howled like Halloween ghosts, even though sunset was two hours away. Twenty-four hours later, the pong of purgatory still choked the air.

About 50 hectares of veld would burn from Deer Park in the east to Higgovale in the west across the mountain’s lower frontal slope. To contain the inferno, it would take 16 firetrucks heaving with up to 6,000 litres of water per tank; 100-plus firefighters; a public-volunteer corps of refreshment caddies and, finally, the sudden, merciful death of the southeaster at about midnight.

The fire was contained about an hour later, said Philip Prins, fire manager for Table Mountain National Park.

One firefighter was reportedly admitted to hospital with injuries, although no civilians were hurt. And, while homes on the urban edge were sprayed down and evacuated, Cape Town’s world-class battalion of city, South African National Parks (SANParks) and volunteer firefighters held the line against the monster flames, saving all properties but for damage to one loft in Rugby Road — this was also attended to by fire services.

In a year of flames fanning across the globe, this was just another fire — it followed historic conflagrations in Australia, California and Oregon, and even the March blaze on Lion’s Head. Here, just west of Table Mountain, paths are still being rehabilitated after flames hollowed out parked cars and transformed 60ha of wild habitat into a shade of midnight dystopia.

Yet, the Halloween fire was also a blaze unto itself. According to the SANParks-contracted NCC wildfire services on Sunday, this was “not a very big fire, but quite intense due to the proximity to the wildland urban interface and strong southeasterly winds… mop-up operations have begun, which could extend until Wednesday.”

The fire also hit outlandishly early in a fire season that normally takes off in December — during the Cape summer’s hot, dry nadir. Never fun, the fires — as locals will attest — are nevertheless a natural, annual baptism necessary to regenerate the fynbos floral kingdom’s extraordinary, globally famous complexities.

Prins told Our Burning Planet that the fire had begun as “a vagrant fire”: “Especially near Platteklip stream going up to Tafelberg Road — there are always vagrants in that area.”

He added that Rob Erasmus from Enviro Wildlife Services, “a qualified investigator” habitually used by SANParks to probe park fires, had sent him a photograph of where the “vagrants had sat; of where the fire had started”.

Informal communities living in the park, said Prins, “are an ongoing problem because we manage a park within a city… a lot of these vagrants come in during the night, or late in the afternoon. They move from the city into the park; early morning, they move again from the park into the city, you know, and so it continues.”

In this instance, too, the accused fire-starters had been “long gone” before the investigation was complete, although Prins explained the incident had been reported to the park’s visitor-safety rangers “to do a patrol of the area, in case [the vagrants] should come back”.

Apart from ecological damage, fires are an expensive business, Prins pointed out.

“People don’t understand how expensive a helicopter is — the flying rate… I just received it last week. It went up from R34,000 per hour to R36,000 per hour. That’s what we pay for a Huey [helicopter]. And that’s not even the standing cost,” he explained. “If we have these big fires and we go into what we call an ‘extended attack’, we’ve got three, sometimes four, helicopters flying for eight hours a day.”

That’s just aerial resources — not even factoring in vehicles, equipment and staff salaries.

Nicky Schmidt of Friends of Table Mountain, a community forum campaigning to conserve the park as an inclusive concern for a variety of mountain users, told Our Burning Planet that, “in an urban environment like Cape Town, development and human activity complicate the reality of living in a fire-adapted biome”.

Several issues came into play, she noted: “People living in the park; religious groups using fire in the park; and urban development allowed on to the edge of the park.”

“Ideally,” Schmidt urged, “we need broad buffer zones between the park and the urban interface.” DM

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