What a year it has been for the Camphill Community – both school and farm – literally a trial by fire! Having survived the ordeal, however, a variety of people who had stood by them during the crisis were invited to a Thanksgiving Service at the Farm on Thursday morning, 12 September.

Assistant Fire Chief Angelo Apalon (middle) and Tarron Dry from Environmental Management at Overstrand Municipality were among those invited to the thank you event held by Camphill last week.

Rev Ken Jackson of the United Church led a short service and both Sam Hodson, CEO of Camphill Farm and Jeanne-Marie Botha, Principal of Camphill School expressed their gratitude to those who had given so unstintingly of their time, energy and material resources to assist the community during its time of trial. Members of the Working on Fire team, which, together with the Overstrand Fire Department, had played such a pivotal role in the resolution of the crisis, were presented with shirts with a special logo representing the Camphill fire, together with a certificate of thanks for their bravery.

Appropriately, the children expressed their gratitude in song, including Amazing Grace and If I were a butterfly, and in prayer. It would be difficult to imagine an occasion in the recent history of Hermanus, when so many members of the wider community have stood together in solidarity to support the most vulnerable amongst them.

It all started on 11 January 2019 when an out-of-control fire, fanned by gale-force winds, raged its way through the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, with Camphill directly in its path. Miraculously, almost none of the buildings or the farm animals were seriously damaged or hurt and although the adult residents of the Farm and the children from the School were hastily evacuated, it seemed that everything would soon return to normal after the mopping up was over.

CEO of Camphill, Sam Hodson, welcomed guests to the Thanksgiving event.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come: the fire had headed underground and started to smoulder in the peat in the Onrus River at the bottom of the property, emitting clouds of toxic gases and fumes. The health hazard was so serious that the children were unable to return to school and for more than six months they became nomads, wandering from one make-do classroom to the next and from their school boarding house to rented accommodation.

In the meantime, environmentalists, wetland specialists, fire fighters and representatives of government departments at all three levels, scratched their heads and tried various methods of extinguishing the underground fire smouldering at around 400 degrees Celsius. Eventually, using a method that had never before been tried in South Africa, they managed to extinguish it metre by metre and, at the beginning of the third school term, they could give the excited children the green light to return to Camphill.

There have continued to be minor flare-ups but the Overstrand Fire Department monitors the situation on a daily basis and has been able to nip them in the bud before they gain a foothold. The major task of rehabilitating the unique and vitally important Palmiet wetland will take many more months to achieve.

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