Apocalyptic fire reaps day of unforgiving destruction in Mother City

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Efforts to contain the out-of-control wildfire that erupted on Table Mountain on Sunday morning at around 8.45 continued throughout the night.

The unforgiving inferno – suspected by Table Mountain National Park to have been ignited by an unattended vagrant fire – burnt down a restaurant at Rhodes Memorial and damaged multiple buildings at the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, including the 200-year-old Jagger Library.

NCC Wildfires, the firefighting services contracted to South African National Parks (SANParks), reported that the wildfire had started above Philip Kgosana Drive in the game camp area between UCT and the busy Hospital Bend junction near Groote Schuur Hospital.

Tearing up the mountain’s slopes towards Rhodes Memorial, it destroyed the iconic memorial restaurant, and then headed towards UCT’s upper campus where boarding students were evacuated to emergency accommodation. 

Huge plumes of smoke blanketed parts of the southern suburbs and drifted into the Cape Town City Bowl.

From about 11.30am, an orange haze smothered parts of Rondebosch, Mowbray and Newlands, car headlights cutting through the gloom. Ash rained down from the sky, only to be whipped back into the air by strong gusts of wind.

Cars, heaving with bird cages, small pieces of furniture and suitcases, idled in congested traffic as residents fled their homes. Students, holding belongings, clustered on pavements in Rondebosch and Mowbray.

Anton Bredell, Western Cape minister of local government, environmental affairs and development planning, said provincial disaster management was monitoring the ongoing blaze.

“Four helicopters continue to water-bomb the fire lines and teams from the City of Cape Town, Working on Fire and SANParks” were working “non-stop to bring the fire under control”, he said.

Between 150 and 200 firefighters were on the fire line. Later, an additional firefighter was injured and taken to hospital. 

Bredell said the fire had jumped the M3 motorway earlier that afternoon, damaging infrastructure – including private homes and the irreplaceable 1796 Mostert’s Mill, the country’s oldest working windmill. 

“Full damage reports remained a work in progress”, while active firefighting efforts were being prioritised. 

“The public is urged to avoid the area and allow the authorities to do their work. The city has not called on any residents to evacuate,” Bredell said. “The public will be alerted immediately should the situation change and any evacuation be needed.”

[che human element aside, natural fynbos blazes should ideally ignite, on average, every 15 years or so as a result of dry, hot, windy conditions interacting with mature, indigenous vegetation.

However, Table Mountain National Park noted that an “initial investigation” into the Rhodes Memorial fire had been done, and this “surmised that the origin of the fire is from a vacated vagrant fire”.

Several factors contributed to the fire’s rapid spread towards Rhodes Memorial, the park noted: blistering temperatures of up to 36°C conspired with an extreme fire-danger index that tipped into the red zone. 

Extremely low relative humidity exacerbated the situation.

“The fire created its own wind that further increased the rate of spread,” the park said. “The excessive amount of smoke and related updrafts made it impossible for the aerial support to slow the rate of spread.”

The park conceded that “one of the major contributors to the rapid rate of spread was the very old pine trees and their debris”.

Alien vegetation is both a fire and an ecological risk. UCT flora expert Tony Verboom, an associate professor, told Mpumalanga Commuter in December that human-caused fires exaggerated this weedy effect “by upsetting the natural competitive hierarchies and generating gaps that provide invasive weeds with an entry point”.

Mpumalanga Commuter has reported on multiple vagrant-caused fires on Table Mountain in recent summer seasons – far more than the park’s natural carrying capacity has evolved to withstand. 

Thick bushes, watercourses and public drinking points on the mountain’s lower slopes tend to be a haven for illegal campers, driven into such spaces by poverty, homelessness and hunger. Shallow, overhanging caves, set a considerable distance from the urban edge, tend to attract church groups carrying out fire ceremonies.

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