Durban - Close to to 2 000 people have been left homeless after a shack fire spread rapidly on Sunday as firefighters had to fend off violent attacks from community members.
Firefighters responded to the blaze at the Foreman Road informal settlement in Clare Estate. It’s believed the fire started when a candle fell over in the early hours of Sunday morning, but firefighters had to flee when residents turned on them and cut a fire hose.
This resulted in the fire spreading quickly and destroying between 800 and 1 000 shacks.
Durban Fire divisional commander Owen Singh said they initially arrived at about 3.30am on Sunday morning and found several shacks well alight.
After assessing the scene, they proceeded to work on the fire, dousing certain areas.
“We prioritise stopping the fire from spreading, we don’t necessarily put out the fire where it started first,” said Singh.
He said some frustrated residents, who were anxious that their shacks be saved, stabbed the firefighters’ hosepipe hoping to get water to put out the fire burning their shacks.
Singh explained that this however decreased the water pressure and eventually cut off the water supply to where the firefighters were working.
“Now the crowd was anxious because there was no water coming out. It was a vicious cycle.
“We can understand people’s desperation but firefighters are professionals and we know what we’re doing”, said Singh.
He said a mob of residents then turned on them, injuring one firefighter by hitting him on the back with a pipe.
Under attack, firefighters retreated, fleeing the scene to standby at a nearby garage while they waited for police.
During this time, the fire raged on.
Abahlali baseMjondolo’s Mqapheli Bonono estimated that between 800 and 1 000 shacks were gutted by the fire.
Resident Senior Ndabankulu said they usually stop fires spreading by toppling a line of shacks at the parameter of the fire.
“People refused, they said if their shacks burned, why must others be saved.”
Ndabankulu lost all his belongings, as he said he “wasted” time trying to reason with a “handful” of residents who “have no sense of community”.
Bonono, who also lives in Foreman Road, condemned this and the attack on firefighters saying it was not how shack dwellers conducted themselves.
Firefighters eventually returned under police guard and put the fire out.
Bonono said two adults in the shack where the fire had initially started were injured.
Police spokeswoman Colonel Thembeka Mbele said a 2-year-old from the same house had died.
Meanwhile with the smoke still rising from the cinders, some residents had already started rebuilding.
Their shiny, new corrugated iron sheets looked out of place among the ashen rubble. Others had put up poles demarcating their sites as disaster management volunteers took a register of those impacted.
Phemeza Nyikiza said she could only save her ID which was in the purse she grabbed when she ran out of her shack. “I didn’t even think of taking anything because my priority was getting my child out.”
Nokuzola Mabhoza managed to save her fridge, and some clothes and sat in her pyjamas next to them awaiting word on where she, and the thousands displaced, would be put up for the night.
Ward councillor Hassan Haniff, who was on the scene in the morning, said eThekwini Disaster Manager Unit was mobilised and would be assisting with accommodation.
“The main problem is that there is no open space to put up a tent in the area, but we have several relief organisations efforts already in the area assisting where they can,” he said.