Picture: Working on Fire/Twitter
Picture: Working on Fire/Twitter

Death toll in Garden Route fires rises to 9, 1500 displaced

By Yolandi Stander Time of article published Oct 31, 2018

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Cape Town - Nine people died and more than 1500 were displaced as wildfires engulfed vast areas of the Garden Route over the past week.

Although most of the fires were contained by Tuesday, firefighters were still battling blazes in Karatara and Rheenendal - where eight people died - by Tuesday afternoon.

Knysna mayor Mark Willemse said on Tuesday: “A mere 16 months ago we were rocked by the horrific 7 June fires and we all hoped and prayed we would never again have to witness such devastation and tragedy. Today we are once again forced to face more tragic deaths caused by the scourge of veld fires.”

Willemse referred to last year’s fires which ravaged the region, consumed more than a thousand homes and about 200 businesses and claimed the lives of seven. Thousands more were forced to evacuate their homes and close to 2000 people were directly affected through major losses.

The fires started on October 20 in what is known as the Vermaaklikheid area, about 40km from Riversdal in the Southern Cape. It was finally contained last Wednesday, but not before 5 000ha of land and nine properties had been destroyed. Knysna firefighting pilot Nico Heyns, 65, also died after his Working on Fire (WoF) Huey chopper crashed during firefighting efforts in the area.

Last Wednesday another fire broke out in the George area, mainly in the Outeniqua Mountains.

Municipal spokesman Chantal Edwards-Klose said by Tuesday fire lines were still active around the base of the Outeniqua Mountains and behind the suburb Denneoord. “Concern now lies with the northern side of Ganzekraal. Teams will also be monitoring a fire behind Hoekwil (in Wilderness).”

Edwards-Klose said that by late Tuesday afternoon, fires in the Seven Passes, Waboomskraal, Fernridge, Blanco and Kraaibosch areas were being managed and were no immediate threat to infrastructure or people.

The fires in the area resulted in about 100 people being evacuated from Golden Valley, an informal settlement in Blanco, on Monday morning.

Several roads, including the Outeniqua and the Montagu passes, were closed. This was due to smoke and to ensure the safety of emergency personnel dealing with the fire.

In the Knysna area a wildfire engulfed Farleigh, Karatara and Rheenendal late on Monday. It was also the fire in Farleigh near Karatara that claimed the lives of eight.

Southern Cape spokesman Captain Malcolm Pojie confirmed there were two women, one of whom was pregnant, and six children under the age of 12, among the dead.

Willemse said: “My heart goes out to all who are suffering the agony of the sudden deaths of their loved ones and I ask all to hold these people in their thoughts and prayers.”

Garden Route District Municipality spokesman Herman Pieters said about 1000 people had been evacuated from the Karatara area and another 200 from the Western side of Rheenendal.

Further evacuations were scheduled for those living in the settlement of Keurhoek in Rheenendal, but was placed on hold on Tuesday afternoon after the wind direction changed in favour of those living in the area.

Willemse said the displaced residents were being housed in community halls in Brenton-on-Sea, Sedgefield, Hornlee, Karatara and Rheenendal.

Pieters confirmed that in George and Knysna more than 20 structures and several plantations had been destroyed.

By Tuesday afternoon, fires had started in the Tsitsikamma area, forcing authorities to close the Tsitsikamma Toll Plaza just outside Plettenberg Bay. Edwards-Klose said there were also fires reported in Uniondale, Noll and Haarlem.

She said there were just short of 600 firefighters throughout the district battling the fires.

Meanwhile, Western Cape social development MEC Albert Fritz called on surrounding communities to support victims and firefighters where possible.

The department mobilised its regional office in George to assist the families of those who died.

“I call on all residents to support the victims and firefighters where possible. To ensure our firefighters remain strong enough to fight this blaze, they require donations of small bottles of water, juice, energy drinks, lip balm, wet wipes, rehydration packets, energy bars and chocolates,” Fritz said.

Donations towards firefighting efforts can be delivered to the George Fire Brigade at Mitchell Street, behind Outeniqua Primary sport fields.

Fritz, with health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo, local government MEC Anton Bredell and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille are believed to be heading to the district today.

Garden Route Media

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