Fireman injured battling Table Mountain blaze

Published Mar 1, 2001


By Monde Dlakavu and John Yeld

The fire on Devil's Peak and parts of Table Mountain was still burning on Thursday morning, and two firefighting helicopters were out at first light to resume dousing operations.

But Cape Peninsula National Park fire chief Kas Theron described the weather on the mountain as calm and said the fire was nowhere near any residential areas.

There were flames on the summit of Devil's Peak early on Thursday morning. The fire had crossed the saddle area between the peak and Table Mountain's eastern table and was heading slowly down the ravines towards Newlands Forest.

It was also burning on Silverstream Buttress on the eastern table, near Platteklip Gorge, towards the cable-car station.

Theron said about 85 firefighters were called in after the fire started about 1.30pm on Wednesday near the Disa Park "Pepper Pot" towers.

It is believed to have been started by vagrants who lived in the bush in this area.

One of the firefighters contracted by the Cape Peninsula National Park is in a stable, but critical, condition after he was caught by the flames on Wednesday afternoon.

Bernard Paulse, 57, from Retreat, was admitted to Cape Town Medi-Clinic in Gardens.

Janine Visagie, a spokesperson for the hospital, said last night that Paulse had facial wounds and his arms were badly burnt. "He is stable, but critical, in our intensive-care unit."

Theron said early on Thursday: "I've been walking around all night, but I'm still 'lewendig' (alive)."

He said the weather had been "very quiet and rather on the hot side" all night.

He had called in the the two Newlands-based firefighting helicopters, which are on contract to the park, early on Thursday to water-bomb burning areas on the eastern table.

"We want to get these fires out to safeguard against the possibility that the fire will jump down again towards Oranjezicht, because we're getting some contradictory weather predictions," he said.

Philip Prins, one of the park's regional managers, said he and a team of 15 firefighters would be flown to the saddle area to attempt to control the fire, which was burning towards Ascension Buttress above Newlands.

The fire swept up the north-western slopes of Devil's Peak at a furious pace, fuelled by huge amounts of alien vegetation, and into the saddle area.

It also burnt up the steep cliffs on the north-eastern corner of Table Mountain.

Firefighters were on standby throughout the night after being called off the fire line about 9pm, with the flames raging across steep areas where it was too dangerous for them to operate.

Two Puma helicopters from the South African Air Force and the two chartered helicopters flew repeated water-bombing sorties throughout the afternoon and into the evening, stopping only about 7.40pm when it became too dark to fly safely.

An air force Alouette helicopter was used for observation and to direct operations.

The firefighters included a group of 18 volunteers who have been training since last year's devastating fires in the southern Peninsula.

One of them is Teri Kruger, who also manages communications for the Ukuvuka-Operation Firestop campaign.

She said: "We were called about 4.30pm, arrived at 5pm and went straight up to the fire line on the Table Mountain side.

"It was very hot and the terrain was difficult. Every time you took a step the rocks would roll out from under your feet."

James Jackelman, the national park's acting conservation manager, said some of the area that burned on Wednesday also had been burned during the major fire of 1991 on Devil's Peak, but much of the saddle area had not been burned for 20 years or longer and the fynbos there was lush and mature.

Fynbos is naturally adapted to fire, which it needs periodically (but not too frequently) to regenerate.

"So, I'm quite keen to see this burn all the way up the peak," said Jackelman.

Erosion problems were likely in the burnt areas on the north-western slopes of Devil's Peak, because the presence of invasive alien vegetation had exacerbated the fire damage, he added.

"We will probably have to take some remedial measures in that area before winter."

And Tafelberg Road, which was covered in rocks dislodged by the fire on Wednesday, was likely to have been damaged and would require repairs.

Jackelman said that, depending on the weather, the fire could burn slowly down the south-eastern slopes of Devil's Peak and Newlands Ravine until it reached the indigenous forests which acted as a natural firebreak.

He praised the efforts of the firefighters and said the co-operation between them had been "quite extraordinary".

"And it was very nice to see the volunteers out working the one flank," he added.

One of the firefighting helicopters, carrying water from Ou Tuine Reservoir near Vredehoek attracted many residents, who gathered at the dam to cheer the chopper crew as they hovered to fill their machine's water bucket before flying off to dump the load on the burning slopes.

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