Over the past two weeks, the Southern Cape has been plagued by large-scale wildfires that has not only claimed the lives of nine people, including six children and a pregnant woman, but have also destroyed about 90 000ha of land, gutted 35 homes and partially destroyed 16 properties.
The fires started on October 20 in what is known as the Vermaaklikheid area, about 40km from Riversdal. The fire was finally contained five days later, but not before 5 000ha of land and nine properties had been destroyed.
Knysna firefighting pilot Nico Heyns, 65, also died after his Working on Fire (WoF) Huey chopper crashed during firefighting efforts in the area.
Late afternoon on October 24, another fire broke out in the George area, largely in the Outeniqua Mountains and several others swept through areas such as Karatara near Knysna, the Tsitsikamma area as well as De Vlugt between Plettenberg Bay and Uniondale.
By yesterday most of the fires had been contained.
According to the Garden Route District Joint Operations Centre (JOC), the biggest thorn in firefighters’ side was the wildfire in the De Vlugt area. Firefighters have been unable to contain the blaze and aircraft have been unable to do water drops due to thick smoke in the area.
On Thursday, ground teams had a close shave when they were surrounded by the wildfire.
“Fortunately, the fire moved towards the east and the teams managed to find a way out of the area. Firefighting teams evaded the heat by using safe zones and infrastructure barriers,” Garden Route District Municipality spokesperson Herman Pieters said.
The JOC reported the fire in the Karatara area, which claimed the lives of eight people and destroyed 35 homes, had been contained by yesterday.
There were, however, concerns over fires in the George area including in Blanco, Witfontein, Saasveld and Denneoord, where mostly mop-up operations were underway.
WoF spokesperson Lauren Howard said about 90 000ha of land had been burnt, but the efforts by about 600 firefighters seemed to have paid off.
Over the past six days alone WoF spotter planes flew more than 38 hours, while fixed wing, 802 air tractor bombers had flown about 22 hours.
“This amounted to about 90 water drops using 270 000l of water. This equated to about four or five drops per hour, depending on the distance of collection, dropping 3 000l per drop,” Howard said.
Their Huey helicopters flew about 40 hours, amounting to 680 water drops. This equated 17 drops an hour at 1 000l per drop.
In these massive operations, the human spirit shone through. “It is absolutely incredible to see these men and woman risk their lives to protect others,” Howard said.
A video of firefighters on their way to the fire line has gone viral. It depicts the group in high spirits, singing while they head out, despite the danger they would face.
It is not only the firefighters’ big hearts that have been praised, but the region’s residents and authorities have also stepped up to make an impact.
Relief has been flooding in from across the region. George municipal spokesperson Chantal Edwards-Klose said at one stage they had to ask the community to refrain from dropping off any more donations as they had so much that they did not have the capacity to store the goods.
Plettenberg Bay resident Marius Venter, who along with several other residents, established the Plett Fire Fund after the devastating June 2017 fires, said he had been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community. In just a week, Plett locals contributed R100 000 to relief efforts which enabled them to purchase necessities for victims and firefighters.
“We have lived through last year’s fire disaster and know first-hand how horrific the impact is on those caught in the middle. It is because of this that people have been so generous,” Venter said.
In the meantime, authorities are helping victims back on their feet. “SANParks, the Knysna Municipality and the George Municipality are in the process of writing to the National Department of Rural Development and Land Reform for assistance. The Department will assist with temporary housing material,” Knysna municipal spokesperson Chumisa Kalawe said.
Most of the gutted houses were in the Karatara area.
Residents affected by the fire are currently being accommodated at the Sedgefield Community Hall and SANParks Wilderness camp.
As a short-term solution SANParks will re-integrating the community by providing accommodation for them for about four weeks.
“The Department of Social Development, SANParks and the Knysna Municipality will provide food for the affected people.