Cape Town - Amid the smoke and destruction of the fire that turned the mountains of the South Peninsula to an ashy wasteland, the people of Cape Town distinguished themselves by their generosity for the exhausted firefighters.
With helicopters, fixed-wing spotter planes and scores of firemen still fighting the blaze that broke out on Sunday, people across the city came forward to do their bit.
Speaking from Lakeside fire station on Monday, city fire and rescue spokesman Theo Layne said: “We are really grateful for all the donations the people have made today. There is so much food and refreshments here that we cannot see the firehouse. The people of Cape Town have showed their support for us with such a great example of human spirit.”
Layne was speaking beside a mountain of bottled water, and towers of pizza boxes and other warm food.
“We have had to separate all of the donations in different categories and there is so much here that we ran out of space in the garage and had to start packing food in the offices.
“There is so much food here that we feel that we need tell people to stop, but they just keep coming and for that we are really grateful. As things stand it looks as though the fight against the fire will continue for a few days so everything brought in here today will be used, nothing will go to waste.”
But it wasn’t just at the fire stations that people showed their mettle. Athos Rushovich of Noordhoek woke early on Monday to the sound of crackling flames, and immediately sprang into action.
A long-time resident of Noordhoek, the 50-year-old had been at the epicentre of the raging fires of 2000, which scorched the peninsula and resulted in residents being evacuated.
“I knew we were in some serious trouble.”
By 6am on Monday, the neighbourhood was “encircled by flames” said a resident who just managed to speed through Chapman’s Peak Drive before the road was closed. Most of Noordhoek was awake, residents huddling together on streets fearing the blaze – fanned and fed by strong winds and dry vegetation – would engulf the area.
But Rushovich and more than 100 volunteers, men and women from nearby homes, were already on the job. In the early hours he had set up a base of operations at the local Dutch Reformed Church, the headquarters for the area’s last historic fire.
Using a network of walkie-talkies, he kept his eyes on the blaze, feeding vital information to the already stretched firefighters who had arrived.
City Disaster Risk Management spokesman Onele Ndesi said four homes were destroyed despite fire services deploying 44 vehicles in the area. The flames had spread, changing direction with the wind.
As firefighters on Chapman’s Peak put it: “This (was) a big one.”
In Noordhoek, Rushovich said the fire had moved rapidly, coming dangerously close to homes. Noordhoek Manor, a retirement home, was in danger.
“We made the call for some people to start evacuating.”
Those who could, began packing their belongings into cars. Rushovich said local guesthouses had opened their doors to displaced residents free of charge.
But the elderly at Noordhoek Manor who had no transport were left stranded.
“That’s when volunteers jumped in, bringing their own cars to pick them up,” said Rushovich.
Neighbourhood watch member Brendhan Kannemeyer said at one point there was a queue of 70 vehicles at the gates of the retirement village.
They were taken to churches in the area where volunteers had already set themselves up, ready to feed them and make sure they were comfortable.
Rushovich, who by 2pm had been holed up in his makeshift control centre for more than 12 hours, said he would remember 2015’s fire as the time “everyone pulled together”.
“I’m still overwhelmed by the support we received.”
He said there were too many volunteers to count – volunteer firefighters armed with wet blankets and spades to douse hot zones, people ferrying food, the local grocer who opened up at 3.30am and sold food at cost, and donations from Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers.
Rushovich said their hands were full treating people for smoke inhalation and other minor injuries.
While it was too soon to assess the damage, the city already reported that homes along Silvermine Road in Noordhoek had been destroyed. On Chapman’s Peak numerous bungalows were set alight when the fire spread along the foothills at about noon.
Rushovich, an insurance salesman, said nothing was certain and the roads into Noordhoek, which had been closed for most of the morning, might not stay open. “Even now I can still hear the fire crackling.”
The severe fire saw Local Government MEC Anton Bredell call in reinforcements on Monday. An additional 250 firemen were set to join the ranks on the frontline, with the first team on the ground by Monday afternoon.
Fires in Tulbagh Valley, the Winterhoek Mountains and Betty’s Bay have severely stretched the province’s fire service.
“The idea is to stabilise the situation across the province. The teams will be deployed to all the affected areas and will provide welcome assistance to the teams that have been on the ground over the past few days.”
JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, said there were 97 metro firefighters, 28 firefighting vehicles, 18 support vehicles and four helicopters battling the blaze on Monday. Working on Fire, a volunteer firefighter organisation, had a further 50 people on the ground and two fixed-wing aircraft in the sky.
“The focus of the firefighting efforts right now is on the protection of properties on the urban fringe and the firefighters on the ground are working all out. Fortunately, the wind has subsided somewhat, so that is a welcome relief. At this stage we have not established the cause of the fire, but that is a secondary concern. Right now the priority is protecting lives and property.”
Mayor Patricia de Lille thanked the volunteers and firefighters for their work extinguishing fires across Cape Town during the last few months.
She said this year’s fire season had been particularly challenging for fire and rescue services.
Statistics showed there had been 4 325 fires between December and January.
“I would like to give heartfelt thank you to the firefighters for their bravery. Every day they encounter danger to ensure that the residents of Cape Town are kept safe. We appreciate their contributions to making Cape Town a truly safe city where disasters are managed efficiently,” she said.
Sandra Fowkes, who was the campaign co-ordinator for the Santam/Cape Argus Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign, set up after the fires in 2000, said a lot of lessons had been learnt since then.
“Because we live in the Cape Floral Kingdom, which has vegetation that has to burn, we will always have fires, but we have learnt a lot from the previous fires.”
Fowkes, who was assisting in Lakeside on Monday, said the emergency services were streets ahead, as was communication with people in isolated areas, alerting them to any danger.
Other advances were spotter aircrafts directing helicopters to water bomb areas, and the joint operation centre co-ordinating the teams of firefighters.
“We’ll always have fires but people are so much more prepared.”
Five helicopters, including two water bombers, one spotter and a helicopter from the Department of Defence, have been up in the air since Sunday, trying to contain the fire, said Table Mountain National Park.