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Fear of disaster as firefighters on high alert

Cape Town 29-01-13- choppers fight  fire at the Wemmershoek Mountains near Franschoek yesterday. 
Picture Brenton Geach

Cape Town 29-01-13- choppers fight fire at the Wemmershoek Mountains near Franschoek yesterday. Picture Brenton Geach

Published Jan 30, 2013

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Zara Nicholson

THE SA Air Force is on high alert and firefighters are bracing themselves for a “critical” 10 days ahead.

Resources are stretched and the challenge is aggravated by soaring temperatures and strong winds fanning some of the worst fires in the province in decades. Authorities fear an “ecological disaster” and have spent R1 million to combat the fires in the Wemmershoek Mountains near Franschhoek.

“Most of the veld in the area is between eight and 12 years old. It needs to burn at least every 17 years to properly regenerate its seed. This fire would probably destroy most of the veld,” Working On Fire operations manager Deon Rossouw said.

Late last night efforts were directed at huge fires burning from Franschhoek towards Paarl and Du Toitskloof. “We are very concerned it will reach the N1 and are moving all our vehicles to that area. The fires are not contained,” Cape Winelands municipality station commander Royston Harris said.

He said there was no immediate danger to property and no need to evacuate people.

Yesterday firefighters battled four large fires, in Franschhoek, Paarl, Eden district and the Cederberg where fires have raged since January 16.

More than 370 additional firefighters have been called in from the Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

Colin Deiner, chief director of Disaster Risk Management, said: “Without additional teams we would’ve been in a lot of trouble. We also have Air Force Oryx helicopters on standby if any lives or property are at risk and to help with aerial firefighting support.”

Deiner said the Franschhoek fire was one of “the worst fires” the province had seen in years because of the size of the area burning. More than 72 000ha of vegetation, fynbos and farmland have burnt.

The fire was allegedly caused when residents of the Prindal informal settlement made a fire in a field.

Reinforcements from Cape Town, the Free State and the Eastern Cape are expected to arrive today. The Cape Winelands District Municipality, Drakenstein Local Municipality, CapeNature and Working On Fire are assisting.

Rossouw said the ecological impact on the fynbos and vegetation land could be disastrous. The fire was “extremely” difficult to bring under control and he hoped reinforcements would mean the end of the fire.

CapeNature spokeswoman Liesl Brink said a team of 120 firefighters was battling to contain the Franschhoek fire, which started on Sunday. Four helicopters and 13 vehicles had been deployed.

“Firefighters assisted the owners and workers of two farms in the Franschhoek valley on the Wemmershoek road to evacuate when the fire spread through the properties. Two farm cottages were damaged.”

The Cederberg fire has affected 24 000ha of vegetation and was under control yesterday morning. Authorities are on high alert as the south-easter is expected to pick up again.

Environmental Affairs and Development Planning MEC Anton Bredell said: “The first priority is to prevent the loss of lives and property.”

A total of 27 vegetation fires flared up around the city yesterday.

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