Helderberg fire: controlled burn to be probed
MURRAY WILLIAMS and ESTHER LEWIS
A CONTROLLED burn at a private golf estate last week is being investigated as the possible cause of a fire that devastated homes and farms above Somerset West on Saturday.
This was confirmed to the Cape Argus by a variety of sources, although the City of Cape Town’s fire department has yet to pronounce on the official cause.
The fire flared up mid-Saturday morning on the foothills of the Helderberg mountain, above the highest houses on Erinvale Estate, an upmarket residential and golf estate at the northern end of Somerset West.
It spread at breakneck speed into the Helderberg Nature Reserve and on to farms at the southern foot of the mountain, tearing into homes at the highest parts of Somerset West’s expensive suburbs.
Fanned by south-easterly winds of near gale force, the blaze then wrapped around the Helderberg, surging towards the start of the Stellenbosch winelands, and crested the top of the Helderberg Dome mountain, burning out of control down towards some of the country’s top wine estates.
This morning, the fire was still burning, although fire officials said it was under control.
The Cape Argus can confirm the following sequence of events:
An “environmental burn” was started by contractors at Erinvale Estate on Wednesday. This is typically to reinvigorate old fynbos, which requires burning every several years, which typically takes place in late summer when the veld is dry. The burn was to cover a small area, and Erinvale had obtained a permit to do this several weeks ago. However, the burn was delayed, after being cancelled by the contractors as conditions had not been favourable, and after notification by neighbouring Lourensford Estate wine farm about two large events they were hosting – the Getaway show and the finish of the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race – both of which attracted thousands of visitors.
The fire eventually took place in controlled conditions on Wednesday, and was extinguished before nightfall.
The contractors’ conditions included the stipulation that the burn site be manned for 48 hours after the burn, to ensure that any flare-ups could immediately be contained. This was done, and the site was officially handed back to Erinvale’s control on Friday.
The blaze ignited on Saturday morning, and was immediately blown westwards by a south-easter, crossing quickly into the Helderberg Nature Reserve, which is owned and managed by the city.
Marian Nieuwoudt, mayoral committee member for planning and environment, said today: “The fire definitely did not start in the nature reserve, but jumped across the boundary.”
Erinvale borders the nature reserve.
The sequence of events was also confirmed by sources who arrived at the site soon after the blaze began, as well as by sources within the rescue services, and at Erinvale.
Cape Town fire chief Ian Schnetler said he would comment only once he had received all the reports.
Meanwhile, people whose homes were affected by the blaze were assessing the damage yesterday.
The four-star Straightway Head Country Hotel was badly damaged. A small part of the estate, established in the 1930s, remained unscathed, but several guest chalets and the restaurant were destroyed.
Head chef Fleur van den Hoogen and several other staff members lived on the premises. While her quarters were still intact, all that was left of the buildings around her were the outer walls.
She is now without water and electricity, and is worried she will be without a job.
Van Den Hoogen was out with her seven-year-old son when the fire broke out. “I came home and luckily someone had grabbed my baby and taken him to safety,” she said. Her two-year-old child had been at their home on the premises.
Most of the guest rooms, restaurant, and other staff living quarters were destroyed.
Van Den Hoogen said that as a single mother, she feared that she no longer had a job and she had no idea what she would do.
A riding school next door also suffered some damage. According to relatives of the owners, all of the horses were evacuated in time.
Properties along Parelvallei Road were still smouldering yesterday morning.
By early afternoon firefighters were still damping down properties, many of them with thatched roofs.
Social Development MEC Patricia de Lille visited families affected by the Somerset West fire yesterday afternoon.
The department sent out care packs to the families.
She warned that hot weather combined with bush that was dry after summer “are creating very dangerous fire conditions”.
Fires raged in other parts of the city at the weekend, including Redhill informal settlement in Fish Hoek, Goodwood, Lavender Hill. The Redhill fire claimed the life of a 25-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant.