Bush fire lights up Cape Town in stunning and frightening spectacle

Cape Town Letter: At least 400 hectares of unique flora and fauna burnt to a crisp

Residential neighbourhoods are lit by raging fires in Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP Photo

Residential neighbourhoods are lit by raging fires in Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP Photo

 

Since Sunday the Corcoran clan has watched an out-of-control bush fire burn its way across the slopes of Table Mountain National Park, which cradle Cape Town’s inner-city area, towards Tamboerskloof, the suburb we call home.

During the day, it has been hard to see the extent of the devastation the fire has inflicted on the unique fynbos vegetation found in one of South Africa’s most famous nature reserves, as the blaze has wrapped the city in a blanket of hazy smoke.

But at night, Cape Town residents have witnessed the spectacular sight of a wall of fire, fanned relentlessly by strong southeasterly winds, dancing its way across the bone-dry mountain slopes, destroying everything in its path.

Watching the bush fire rage has been both stunning and frightening. Indeed, it was not until the wind subsided on Tuesday morning that people’s sense of foreboding around the blaze began to lift.

In the absence of high winds, at first light the emergency services were able to dispatch helicopters for the first time to water-bomb the hard-to-reach pockets of fire that were jumping across the face of Table Mountain unhindered.

And by mid-morning, city officials announced that the blaze had been brought tentatively under control.

This official news drew a collective sigh of relief from most Capetonians, but we all know that at the end of a long, hot summer, the bush fire could easily reignite over the coming days, especially as there is no rain forecast for the rest of this week.

We have all witnessed, either first-hand or on television, how quickly the fire has swept through some areas. Since it broke out on Sunday morning near Rhodes Memorial, which is on Table Mountain’s eastern slopes, the emergency services have been forced to quickly evacuate neighbourhoods over fears the inferno would outrun the 250 firefighters trying to contain it.

By Monday evening five firefighters had been taken to hospital to be treated for burn injuries.

Students evacuated

The University of Cape Town, the oldest university in South Africa and one of Africa’s most prestigious, was engulfed by fire on that first day, and thousands of students had to be evacuated.

University officials have confirmed that several campus buildings have been badly damaged, including the reading room at the 200-year-old Jagger Library, which also lost some of its African literary collections.

Fire fighters battle a blaze that destroyed the nearly 200-year-old Jagger Library on the University of Cape Town. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA
Fire fighters battle a blaze that destroyed the nearly 200-year-old Jagger Library on the University of Cape Town. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

“Some of our valuable collections have been lost, however a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter [it],” the executive director of UCT libraries, Ujala Satgoor, wrote in a Facebook post.

Several streets in Vredehoek, a suburb close to ours that backs on to Table Mountain, were also evacuated on Sunday and Monday, with residents given only a short time to gather up some belongings before they had to flee.

Large bush fires are not uncommon in South Africa, especially in the Western Cape province, which has become a much drier place in recent years due to the erratic rainfall and drought brought on by climate change.

But the authorities suspect this particular disaster was man-made, and may be the result of arson, a campfire that got out of control, or both.

The ongoing fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is decimating Cape Town’s local economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism, and homelessness has soared over the past 12 months.

Desperate people

During the day these desperate people are in Cape Town’s city centre begging to survive, but at night many retreat into the Table Mountain nature reserve to set up makeshift camps and cook on open fires, which is illegal.

According to Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, one suspect has so far been taken into custody on suspicion of starting the fire.

“There is a lot of speculation about additional fires that were started, and whether the original fire was an act of arson. This will form part of investigations, but the city can confirm one suspect in his 30s was taken into custody in the vicinity of Devil’s Peak [a Table Mountain peak],” he said in a media interview on Monday.

By Tuesday afternoon the Corcoran residence in Tamboerskloof was thankfully still intact, and with a bit of luck it will stay that way.

But at least 400 hectares of unique flora and fauna have been burnt to a crisp, say national park officials, and firefighters will have to battle the blaze for the coming days at least.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.