Friends of Table Mountain (FoTM) chairperson Andy Davies said more needed to be done to prevent these fires. Picture: Sisonke Mlamla/Cape Argus
Friends of Table Mountain (FoTM) chairperson Andy Davies said more needed to be done to prevent these fires. Picture: Sisonke Mlamla/Cape Argus

SANParks blamed by groups for ignoring mountain vagrant fires over the years

By Shakirah Thebus Time of article published Apr 21, 2021

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Cape Town - Mountain-user groups have pointed a finger at SA National Parks (SANParks) for allowing vagrants to start fires that eventually led to the latest Table Mountain blaze, despite numerous reports about vagrant fires over the years.

Table Mountain Watch (TMW), a collective of concerned residents, said SANParks had been repeatedly warned of the threat posed by these fires, coupled with the mismanagement of vegetation.

TMW head André Van Schalkwyk said: “As park users, we have alerted SANParks to locations, incidents, evidence of where indigent people camp in the park – on countless occasions and over many, many years. It makes no sense to conveniently blame vagrants when, as a state-owned enterprise, they’ve done very little to address the problem.”

Friends of Table Mountain (FoTM) chairperson Andy Davies said more needed to be done to prevent these fires. “FoTM have repeatedly complained about vagrant fires and logged calls, but it appears no action is being taken.”

SANParks spokesperson Rey Thakhuli was contacted to respond to the allegations. Following attempts to reach him, Thakhuli would not be drawn on the allegations and referred to a SANParks statement released last night and in which SANParks chief executive, Fundisile Mketeni said: “An independent investigation is being carried out on the causes and the origin of the fire and information will be shared as soon as the report becomes available. We will facilitate a platform for a series of discussions on the complex topic of managing fire in the park.”

Police confirmed that a 35-year-old man was arrested in Philip Kgosana Drive and charged with arson.

NPA spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said: “His case has been postponed to April 28, 2021 for bail information.”

At 1.30pm, yesterday, the fire was successfully contained.

Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) fire manager Philip Prins said firefighters and teams will remain on the ground for monitoring purposes for the following few days.

Premier Alan Winde, mayco member for Safety and Security JP Smith, Fire and Rescue Services head of operations Arlene Wehr, and acting chief fire officer Clinton Manuel gave an update on the situation at the Central Fire Station yesterday.

Winde said 11 structures were damaged or destroyed. These include homes, six University of Cape Town (UCT) buildings, two heritage buildings, including Mostert’s Mill and UCT’s Jagger library, and the Rhodes Memorial restaurant. “There have been no fatalities as a result of this fire. Having said that, I have been informed that a total of six firefighters were injured in the line of duty and that a further nine civilians were taken to hospital due to smoke inhalation. I wish all firefighters and civilians a speedy recovery.”

The sound of choppers echoed over the CBD as aerial resources were deployed yesterday.

Wehr commended firefighters for their efforts in combating the blaze without any aerial support on Monday, due to windy conditions.

“The two areas we are basically concentrating on right now are at Devil’s Peak and at UCT, where we are doing some damping down at the facility.”

Smith said CCTV footage was being studied to provide a clearer picture of how the fire had begun. He asked the members of public who had footage of where the fire had started to assist by providing their footage, so it could be used in preliminary investigations.

Manuel said damage assessments would be done only once firefighting teams were off the ground.

UCT said its academic programme would resume only on Monday, due to the severe structural damage to properties on its Rondebosch campus.

Sunday’s fire along the slopes of Table Mountain reminded us once again that nature can be beautiful, yet devastating when its power is unleashed.

What started as a small fire, next to Rhodes Memorial on Sunday morning, soon became a raging inferno, fanned by strong south-easterly winds, razing all that stood in its path.

Most of us woke up to the shock, and social media images and video of the destruction of the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant and Tea Room. Despite the valiant efforts of firefighters, the fire snaked down to parts of the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus, forcing hundreds of students who lived in residences on campus to be evacuated.

But instead of the residences, the fire razed Jagger Library which served as the reading room for the African Studies Library, which perhaps contained the largest collection of historical African literature on Southern Africa’s languages.

While that precious store of memories and languages has now been reduced to ash, UCT will no doubt rebuild and restore the buildings lost in the fire.

The fire changed course late on Monday evening, heading towards Devil’s Peak forcing residents in parts of Walmer Estate and Vredehoek to evacuate their homes.

That no life was lost is a miracle, as some pea-brained runners and hikers insisted on using Table Mountain on Monday despite warnings from emergency rescue personnel.

UCT’s vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng who has come under sustained attack from regressive forces inside and outside the university needs to be lauded for being at the forefront and showing leadership when it mattered most.

On Sunday, students forced out of their residences were accommodated at several hotels in the City Bowl.

Gift of the Givers – no strangers to assisting the destitute – should also be thanked for coming to the aid of students who have had their lives upended in the midst of exams.

Police have already arrested an alleged arsonist for starting the fire. While police are investigating the cause of the fire, we should not make the homeless the scapegoats.

Cape Argus

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