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Mountain fire puts village at risk

Published Feb 24, 2009

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A week-old fire - which has wreaked havoc in the Helderberg - was on Tuesday morning threatening Sir Lowry's Pass Village.

Since it began last Wednesday, the fire gained momentum on Sunday night when it began burning south from the Vergelegen Estate.

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By last night, the flames had crested the Hottentots Holland Mountains into the Elgin Valley and began burning east towards the town of Grabouw.

The fire was also near Sir Lowry's Pass and the key highway was closed for parts of Tuesday morning due to chocking smoke.

By dawn on Tuesday morning, firefighters had managed to save the luxury mountain lodge Bezweni.

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The large twin-thatched lodges stood alone in an island of burnt vegetation on the mountain slope, while the fire still raged barely a kilometre away.

The Hollander, Pim Nyhuis, built the two large lodges in 2006 and each boasts five luxury suites.

At the fire-control centre at the Vergelegen wine cellar, a huge arc of smouldering farmland stretched from Lourensford Estate, along the foot of the mountains towards Sir Lowry's Pass.

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The fire on Tuesday burnt through several estates, including near to Wedderwill's wine cellar and De Capo wine estate at Knorhoek.

Waterbombing operations began at dawn on Tuesday.

A Working for Fire helicopter lifting water from several farm dams near to Sir Lowry's Pass.

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At least four helicopters were poised to assist on Tuesday. But air turbulence close to the Hottentots-Holland mountain face prevented them from taking to the air.

On Tuesday, there was continued suspicion that arson was the possible cause of at least some of the blazes in the area in the past three weeks.

But by Tuesday morning no firm evidence of arson had yet emerged.

City of Cape Town fire chief Ian Schnetler said this morning he doubted that arson was to blame for this particular blaze, but that the tempestuous and rapidly changing winds had more likely been to blame.

The entire Helderberg Basin remained thick with smoke this morning, having carpeted houses, driveways and swimming pools with ash and burned leaves and twigs for the past 48 hours.

Firefighters reported that at least one waterpump had been lost to the blaze during the night and at least one firefighter had been hospitalised after excessive smoke inhalation.

At Wedderwill, several vineyards were entirely destroyed - cruelly just before harvest.

Further west, the fires had threatened a number of smaller farms, such as the historic farm of Waterkloof, where the contstruction of a massive new winery overlooking False Bay is under way.

At the time of going to press this morning, efforts were being concentrated in the vicinity of Sir Lowry's Pass.

Attmpts were being made to prevent flames from leaping the highway and starting to race south towards Gordon's Bay.

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