Three wildfires driven by gale-force winds left a trail of destruction in their wake as they raged across the Overstrand this past weekend. Most of the active fire lines have been extinguished but a number of hotspots remain. It is expected that mopping-up operations will continue for the rest of the week.
While clouds of dark, smothering smoke filled the air in Betty’s Bay, Hermanus and Franskraal, residents and volunteers from all over the Western Cape jumped in to assist the various firefighting crews in supressing the blazes.
Helicopters fitted with Bambi bags bombarded the licking flames with water under the guidance of specialised spotter planes, while ground crews fought heroically to prevent the flames from reaching residential areas.
In all three regions members of the public, covered in soot and eyes watering, held back the flames with buckets, hoses, spades and even branches. Neighbourhood watches and other volunteer organisations sprang into action to help direct traffic and guide residents and tourists out of the suburbs that had to be evacuated.
Winds in excess of 90 km/h on Friday drove the blaze at lightning speed, catching many residents off-guard. “I was walking in town when I saw the flames breaching the top of the mountain in Hermanus. The next moment the flames came cascading down towards Generation Schools Hermanus and Bosko Church like a waterfall,” relates resident Marius van Wyk. “It was like I was caught in a movie. I could not move as my eyes were fixed on the flames. The next moment it was right next to the schools and the houses in Hermanus Heights.”
With the flames dangerously close to the schools and the surrounding suburbs, the decision was made to evacuate everyone from the area. Learners and teachers hurriedly kept the flames at bay to save the Astro turf fields and the Hermanus Country Market.
In the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley a similar scenario unfolded where several farms, houses and other structures lay in the path of the oncoming flames. Lady Luck was on the side of Hermanus as only two houses and one shed were gutted in the fire.
Residents in neighbouring Betty’s Bay were not so fortunate, as the fire spread rapidly down the mountain before jumping over the R43 and spreading between the houses nestled in the fynbos.
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Betty’s Bay suffered the most damage, with 41 houses destroyed and 28 partially damaged. As the drama unfolded, residents shared pictures on social media of cars burning in driveways and houses being reduced to ashes in the inferno.
Frightening scenes of an elderly couple desperately trying to flee but unable to move due to the gusting winds, were captured on video by well-known fire photographer Justin Sullivan. The scene could have ended in tragedy if Justin did not happen to drive past and stop to pick up the couple and drive them to safety, while their burning car was abandoned in the road.
On Saturday homeowners could be seen sifting through the rubble to find anything that was salvageable. At the site of one of the wooden houses that was completely destroyed, neighbours were found assisting the owners who live in Portugal to find the remains of their safe in which a revolver had been left. After hours of searching the scarred safe was found with the burned revolver still inside. Across the road it was ironic to see the scarred remains of a house where only the fireplace and chimney had been left standing.
In Franskraal some streets were empty and desolate after the residents were forced to evacuate. An eerie silence broken only by the clack-clack of the helicopters accompanied the apocalyptic landscape. The empty and charred shells of dozens of tortoises and snakes that had tried to flee, littered the roads. Scores of residents congregated near the beach to watch in awe as two helicopters flying in tandem filled their Bambi buckets with water from the ocean.
Residents of several thatched homes desperately tried to keep their roofs wet with hoses and buckets of water as the ash and soot descended, raising the temperature considerably. A total of four houses were destroyed and another two partially damaged.
By Monday afternoon more than 14 300 ha of fynbos had been destroyed – an area equivalent to 143 million square metres or 14 290 rugby fields. In total 47 houses were completely gutted, together with one shed, while 30 houses were damaged. The final number of structures that were either destroyed or damaged will only be available after all the fires have been extinguished.
According to Fire Chief, Lester Smith, it is difficult to accurately determine the destruction caused by the fires as flare-ups continue. “The fact that no smoke is visible does not mean that a fire is completely extinguished. Many times, smouldering debris can flare up without any notice, especially when there is a strong wind.”
It is suspected that the fire which started in Betty’s Bay early on New Year’s Day, was caused by a flare that was allegedly discharged by a Mooiuitsig resident. Shelton April, who was arrested a few days after the fire started, appeared in the Caledon Magistrates Court on Monday after being charged with one count of contravening the National Environmental Management Act. The case was transferred to the Regional Court where April will appear on 23 January for a formal bail application. He will remain in custody.
The Hermanus fire originally stared on Christmas Day in Karwyderskraal and was brought under control before flaring up again on Friday, 11 January. It is still unclear what caused the Hermanus and Franskraal fires.
Although rain brought welcome relief on Friday evening, several flare-ups at all three sites were reported on Saturday. In the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley helicopters and ground crews battled the blaze while cricket legend Jacques Kallis married Charlene Engels at the Bona Dea Estate on Saturday afternoon.
The wedding, attended by several well-known local and international sporting guests, went off without a hitch even after the décor, brought all the way from Johannesburg, caught fire and was destroyed on Friday evening. Bona Dea owner, Robert Johnson said they met with the couple on Friday evening and the decision was taken to go ahead with the wedding as planned. “We offered them all the décor we had in stock and the wedding planner, together with our dedicated staff, worked long hours to ensure that everything was perfect,” says Robert.
“The venue where the wedding was held was not damaged and the ceremony went ahead successfully. The only real issues that affected the guests were the smoke and wind which nobody could do anything about. As you can imagine there were numerous challenges to overcome at short notice.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the officials and public representatives of the Overstrand Municipality for the assistance we received, especially from the Directorate of Management Services who supplied us with emergency water (we had none) and the Directorate of Protection Services as well as Law Enforcement and Security who made it possible for the guests to actually get to the wedding through the ‘burning bushes’ and be assured of their safety.”