Four times Cape Town experienced wildfires and how they started

By Keagan Le Grange Time of article published Apr 20, 2021

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CAPE TOWN: It is never an unlikely case when a fire breaks out in the Table Mountain National Park, in Cape Town, due to nearly perfect conditions for wildfire, with hot weather, low humidity, dry vegetation and strong winds running along the mountains.

There have been many reports of fires on and around Table Mountain over the past 20 years, with five of them – including the most recent fire – being high impact wildfires.

1. January 16, 2000

South Africa experienced one of its driest months in December 1999, according to the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), which was followed by one of the country’s biggest wildfires on Sunday, January 16, 2000.

It was reported to have begun along Ou Kaapse Weg, spreading quickly across the Silvermine area, up the slopes of the mountains, eventually reaching Constantiaberg by mid-afternoon.

Within 40 minutes, the fire travelled 1km soon reaching the first set of houses in Hout Bay and, by the end of the day, most of the area had been evacuated as the fire spread further overnight.

Over five days, the fire spread to surrounding areas, such as Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Scarborough, and eventually reaching Simon’s Town.

Fortunately, by Thursday January 20, cooler temperatures and calmer winds assisted the tireless firefighters contain the blaze.

According to the GFMC, the director of the Cape Peninsula National Park reported that two large fires which contributed to the blaze may have been started by a tossed match or burning cigarette thrown out of a car, while the second was started in an informal settlement above Simon’s Town.

2. January 26, 2006

A large wildfire broke out at around 4pm on Thursday, January 26, 2006, above Tafelberg Road, which runs along the Table Mountain slopes.

The blaze had sped rapidly across the slopes due to wind and dry conditions, killing a British tourist from smoke inhalation, who was hiking close to the lower cable station.

The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway facility emergency evacuated, as the fire made its way further up the mountain – eventually reaching Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge then to Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, reported Mail & Guardian.

On Friday, January 27, the wind picked up further, spreading what was left of the fire above the Camps Bay area, as it made its way towards the Twelve Apostles Hotel.

In early hours of the morning on Saturday, January 28, firefighters were able to contain the blaze that had stopped right before the hotel, with lower wind speeds assisting the fight against the fire.

A 36-year-old British tourist faced charges for arson and culpable homicide, for allegedly starting the fire by discarding a burning cigarette out of a car.

3. March 17, 2009

On Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at around 8.30pm, a fire broke out on Table Mountain, close to Rhodes Memorial, in a close vicinity to where the most recent Table Mountain Fire, on Sunday April 18, 2021, began.

The fire spread rapidly due to strong winds, with initial fears that it may head into the direction of UCT Upper Campus, however, the fire instead started making its way up Devil’s Peak.

At around 12am Wednesday, the fire began moving in the direction of the surrounding suburbs, such as Tamboerskloof, Oranjezicht, Vredehoek, and Gardens, leading to the call for emergency evacuation of surrounding residents.

Reports suggest that the fire, which had originally headed towards Rhodes Memorial and UCT, changed directions – making its way over the Devils Peak mountain heading towards surrounding suburbs within two hours.

According to an SABC news report, seven people were injured and one death was reported. A person had unfortunately succumbed to his injuries in hospital.

4. March 1, 2015

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, a fire that had begun in Muizenberg burnt along the Cape Peninsula until March 9, when firefighters were finally able to put out the blaze.

The fire that started on Sunday had been contained, however, it flared up again, at around 2.20am on Monday, due to strong winds, making its way to Chapman’s Peak Drive and Ou Kaapse Weg.

By the third day, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, the fire had expanded – spreading to surrounding areas such as Hout Bay, Noordhoek and Lakeside, and continued to burn for the next three days.

On Wednesday, March 4, 2015, another fire had begun along the Cape Peninsula, believed to have started by a lightning strike in the Cape Point Nature Reserve.

Although firefighters had managed to gain control of the fire, it picked up rapidly due to strong winds, making it difficult for aerial resources to assist the firefighting, which lead to the death of helicopter pilot Hendrik Willem Marais, who crashed while fighting the fire his Bell Huey helicopter.

As the Muizenberg fire eventually died out, it was determined that a possible cause was arson, as reports shortly followed with law enforcement officers called on Tuesday evening, March 10, 2015, due to alleged reports of arsonists attempting to spark new fires using a flare gun in Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay.

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