Cape Town - Christmas bonuses and clothes, ID documents and family savings went up in smoke as a fire raged through the Valhalla Park informal settlement on Monday, destroying 350 houses and leaving 1 400 people homeless.
A howling south-easter fanned the flames as people desperately tried to save televisions, fridges, carpets and other items from the fire.
By early evening more than half the 585 dwellings in the settlement, near Bishop Lavis, had been destroyed. It is not clear how the fire started.
Theo Layne, spokesman for the city’s fire and rescue services, said nine firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, and six were taken to hospital. Three residents were injured, included a three-year-old boy who had burns on his feet. There were no fatalities.
Resident Moira Anthony said angrily: “All my money I saved and stored in my mattress is now gone. But what are people going to do? Where are we going to sleep? I speak on behalf of all the people in Valhalla Park today.
“We all lost our Christmas clothes, our bonus money that we all worked hard for. It is very sad and makes us heartsore that we have to go through all of this.
“We will have to pay for new ID booklets, new birth and marriage certificates. We will have to start all over. This is not right. We have to go through these fires year after year.”
While some people were able to save possessions including television sets, fridges, carpets, mattresses and clothes, others found out about the fire too late, or were not at home.
Residents Anthony and Marlene Meiring said they had lost their savings of R10 000 in the fire.
“All I have left now is my black couch and the clothes I have on,” said Anthony.
Residents helped each other where they could, dragging furniture out of people’s homes and leaving it on the lawn beside Beauvallon Secondary School as they waited for the fire to die down.
Salaamuddeem Stemmet said he and his friend, Frankie Fernandez, helped to save furniture where they could.
“There was way too much smoke. It was so thick of smoke that you could not see anything.
“Gas stoves went off like bombs and that is when we decided to help out. I am not from Valhalla, but we had to help out where we could.”
Fire services were on the scene soon after the fire broke out, but water was a problem.
People were shouting: “Where is the water? Where is the water?” as the fire spread to more shacks.
Firefighters were eventually able to find water and started putting out the fire.
Residents helped the firefighters, along with the police, metro police, law enforcement and disaster management.
Layne said the wind had seriously hindered their operations.
“Accessibility was also a major problem – we couldn’t get our guys in-between the shacks and we had to split our forces in three different points,” he said.
A total of 18 fire engines, 11 water tankers, three rescue vehicles and eight support vehicles were dispatched to fight the fire, which was brought under control about 4.30pm.
Resident Natalie Adams said candles and oil lamps were a major problem in the area.
“They smoke oka pyp (hookahs), tik, and burn candles and their oil lamps. People cannot be upset about the fire if they carry on being unsafe.”
One man, who declined to be named, claimed gangsters used the opportunity to start a fight.
“I saw how they were shooting from their cars while the fire went on. You would think they would help, but they saw it as an opportunity to fight.”
Gaironiesa Wilson said the council would do nothing for them.
“We want houses, but what are they going to do? Nothing.
“All we get are a few planks and metal sheets to rebuild our homes. That is not enough.”
Others complained that their councillor was not at the scene. Some even protested that the fault lay with the DA and that people should vote for the ANC in the next elections.
“DA is ruling here and they do nothing! I know the ANC will provide,” said resident ML Prince.