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Fire on the Foothills
Cape Town has been hit by a devastating wildfire. On Sunday morning, 18 April, at 8:45 am, the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services responded to a “vegetation fire” above the M3 motorway at Hospital Bend, opposite the famous Groote Schuur Hospital (where the world’s first heart transplant was performed).
Rhodes Memorial Engulfed in Flames
At first, it was windless and the fire looked containable. However, over the next three hours, the bush fire spread across the slopes of Devils Peak to Rhodes Memorial and from there towards the Rondebosch Upper Campus of University of Cape Town (UCT). The Rhodes Memorial Tea Garden and Restaurant went up in a fire ball as its gas canisters exploded.
The Oldest Windmill in the Southern Hemisphere Burned
The historic Mostert Mill, the oldest windmill in the Southern hemisphere, dating back to 1796, was burned when the fire jumped the M3 motorway. This historic windmill was repaired and donated to the people of the Cape over 120 years ago by Cecil John Rhodes. Two thatched house dwellings in Rosebank were also severely damaged as the fire spread from Mostert’s Mill to adjacent homes.
University Library and Buildings Go Up in Flames
Incredibly, six education buildings in the centre of the University of Cape Town were severely damaged by fire, even though these are stone buildings located in the middle of the campus and quite some distance from the veld fire.
Darkness at Midday
The midday sun was almost obliterated by the massive clouds of smoke. Great clouds of soot and ash fell throughout Rondebosch, including on our Mission grounds as people rushed to close windows and doors, to keep the smoke and ash out.
Helicopters Waterbomb the Fire
It was like a war zone with great clouds of smoke and the regular sounds of helicopters flying above. Huey helicopters from the Wildfire Services in Newlands Forest flew repeatedly overhead, each carrying buckets of a thousand litres of water at a time, to water bomb the inferno raging on the slopes of Devil’s Peak.
Fire Fighters Struggle to Contain the Inferno
By late on Sunday night, more than 250 fire fighters from the City of Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), Working on Fire and the Volunteer Wildfire Services were struggling to contain the inferno, which was described as: “out of control.”
At 8:10 pm, a suspected arsonist was apprehended by a man and his children walking their dogs. Of the three suspects seen starting a new blaze above Vredehoek, on the other side of the mountain, one 35-year-old man was taken into custody, but the two other suspects managed to evade arrest.
Homes Evacuated in the Middle of the Night
At 2 am, on Monday, 19 April, gale force winds picked up and Vredehoek residents in the line of the approaching fire were ordered to evacuate. Hundreds of residents began pouring out of their homes in the early hours of the morning, with children, pets and belongings, Disaster Risk Management staff and volunteers evacuated several streets in the suburb on the slopes of Devils Peak, including the Disa Park Towers and all nearby schools. Reportedly, eleven schools in the area were closed due to concerns for smoke inhalation. 255 Fire fighters worked through the night to restrain the raging wildfires. The Vredehoek fire was contained by 2:30 pm on Monday afternoon.
Nine civilians were hospitalised for smoke inhalation. Six fire fighters were injured in the line of duty. Approximately 600 hectares of wilderness were devastated by the wildfire.
Helicopters Grounded by High Winds
High winds on Monday prevented the helicopters from being mobilised in the area. By Monday afternoon, at 3:30 pm, the fire had wrapped around the North face of Devils Peak and was racing towards Tafelberg Road on the slopes of Table Mountain. Fire crews were mobilised to suppress this new fire threat.
As Winds Died Down the Helicopters were Mobilised Again
On day 3, Tuesday, 20 April, the winds had slowed, leaving the city of Cape Town shrouded in smoke. The sounds of helicopter engines and whirring blades overhead continued throughout Tuesday as the South African Air Force added more helicopters to assist the Wildfire Services Hueys in water bombing the blaze. By the end of Tuesday, the Fire Department announced the fires largely contained, but the danger of smouldering fires re-erupting still needed attention.
Jagger Library Gutted by Fire
The full cost of this devastating inferno is yet to be calculated. It includes the Jagger Library in the centre of the University of Cape Town. Jagger Library contained 1.2 million volumes, including priceless and irreplaceable collections, including the majority of Architect Herbert Baker’s archives. Fire doors did come down to protect sections of the library, but hundreds of thousands of books were lost in the inferno. This included the vast majority of the African Study Published Print Collection (approximately 70,000 items) and the entire Africa Study Film Collection on DVD (about 3,500 items). Questions of how the bushfire could have reached stone buildings in the middle of the campus are yet to be answered.
Environmentalists Reveal that Government Authorities Ignored Repeated Warnings
Nicky Schmidt of the Environmental Group Parkscape, has declared that the authorities were repeatedly warned about the fire risk in Cape Town. Parkscape has claimed that mismanagement of the Table Mountain National Park put lives and property in unwarranted danger. Parkscape, Table Mountain Watch, Friends of Table Mountain and other environmental groups have repeatedly warned of the danger of tolerating approximately 100 vagrants living in the National Park and the risks of the illegal fires on mountain slopes which were laden with alien vegetation. Nicky Schmidt observed: “The slopes where the fire started is littered with pine trunks and stumps, tinder dried just waiting to go up in flames.” Andre van Schalkwyk of Table Mountain Watch said: “We have alerted SAN Parks to incidents on countless occasions,” with very little action resulting. Andy Davies of Friends of Table Mountain reported that they: “Repeatedly complained about vagrant fires, but it appears no action is taken.”
Students Housed in Hotels Demand Holiday from Study and Trauma Counselling
4,000 students were evacuated from the UCT Upper Campus residences and free accommodation was arranged by the universities in hotels around the city. Incredibly, student activists at the University of Cape Town were, from the first day, demanding that all semester assignments, tests and lectures be suspended and that all students be provided with “trauma counselling.” UCT Vice Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, in a letter to students, confirmed: “No classes, tutorials, laboratory work or tests will take place throughout the week.”
Considering that the University of Cape Town appeared to have borne the brunt of fire damage to buildings, it seemed amazing that they were not being mobilised to protect the library, stop the fire, help repair the damage, clean up, fix what could be fixed and rebuild what needs to be rebuilt. It is a sad commentary on the selfish, helpless, self-centred mentality produced by an entertainment and entitlement culture that so many healthy young people did not feel a sense of duty to respond to the crisis by seeking to be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.
Irresponsible Incendiary Incitements to Arson
Incredibly, some irresponsible individuals made incendiary comments on social media, commenting on: “The Newlands Fire in Cape Town,” Mongameli Xhotyeni posted: “Every white man’s house is destroyed, it’s a pay back.” And “This fire hit the white people at last. Leave my country.”
“Let it Burn. Assist with Petrol and Paraffin to Make Sure”
Zanokuhle tweeted: “Rhodes Memorial must burn to the ground. This is not just a fire, but a cleansing process. Colonial rot has no place in society. Let it burn. Students must assist with petrol and paraffin to make sure.”
“UCT Students Must Assist the Fire by Adding Petrol. Rhodes Memorial Must Burn”
Zanokuhle also retweeted SRC Secretary General UWC: “Let it burn to the ground.” Shortly thereafter Zanokuhle tweeted: “UCT students must assist the fire by adding petrol. Rhodes Memorial must burn to the ground. Ashes to ashes.”
18 April Marxist Revolutionary Holiday in Zimbabwe
It may be relevant that 18 April is marked in Zimbabwe as a public holiday for what they call their Marxist Revolution. Dictator Robert Mugabe came to power, 18 April 1980.
By way of contrast, many Capetonians have responded valiantly by donating generous quantities of supplies to fire fighters and other emergency service personnel and the SPCA has mobilised rescues of wildlife whose habitat has been devastated. Every crisis includes both danger and opportunity. “…See how great a forest a little fire kindles!” James 3:5
Prayer and Action Needed
Please continue to pray for all in Cape Town affected by this devastating inferno. Practical projects are being planned and mobilised, including Friends of Rhodes Memorial who are planning to clean up the monument which was engulfed by the wildfire. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.” Isaiah 43:2
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa