Cape Town - It was a night of confusion and fear for residents on the perimeters of the multiple blazes in the South Peninsula as the battle against the flames raged around them.
In Constantia, octogenarians Fran and Jeffrey Collings lost everything when their house in Almondbury Lane burnt down after they were forced to evacuate. They did not even have time to get dressed and escaped in their pajamas.
On Wednesday morning the sun rose with an eerie dirty hue through the smoke to reveal great swathes of devastation over large areas of the Table Mountain National Park. Columns of smoke rose from smouldering vegetation and flames roared in many parts of the mountainous peninsula.
A wind shift late on Tuesday from the south-east to the north-west came as good news in parts where the fire was pushed back on itself and began dying in the burnt out embers it left behind. But in other parts, the fire was blown back onto unburnt vegetation where it found fresh fuel.
St James and Clovelly were two of the areas where it rose afresh early on Wednesday morning.
“We have been up all night wetting down our property and the properties of our neighbours and eventually they told us to evacuate our properties,” said Cape Argus business editor Ryan Cresswell, who lives in Clovelly.
“We saw a neighbour’s house go up, but we think our house is okay. We cannot get back yet, because the road is criss-crossed with fire hoses and the guys are very busy up there. The trouble really started when the wind shifted,” said Cresswell.
At St James, homes were also evacuated in the top rows of the residential area. As flames crept down the mountainside, thickets burned fiercely.
Noordhoek residents were also evacuated early Wednesday morning after the fire swept towards houses in Monkey Valley, setting fire to thatch roofs and gutting an upmarket home.
They had gone to bed thinking the blaze, which has threatened to engulf the area since Sunday, had been beaten back, but at 1am the wind shifted direction and the flames returned with a new intensity.
John Parker woke up to find the fire almost in his backyard. He jumped into action, sounding the alarm over a neighbourhood watch radio and the local Whatsapp group. A line of flames was moving through the dense vegetation on the mountainside, and as it engulfed tall pine trees it sent an explosion of sparks flying towards homes in the valley.
Parker said most people had already packed their cars with their most valuable items – from photo albums to priceless pianos. They then sped towards the Noordhoek rugby fields where they parked.
Resident Trygve Hvidsten said that when he came out of his house the fire was “raining sparks down on us”.
When the Cape Argus found Parker on Wednesday morning he was exhausted. His white shirt was covered in soot, his face caked in ash.
The doctor had spent the whole night co-ordinating firefighting efforts while trying to stamp out small fires in his garden.
“I’m surprised my house is still standing,” said Parker.
Firefighters parked in driveways of large homes and snaked their fire hoses up towards the smouldering landscape above.
Parker thanked a group of volunteers as they passed on the back of a bakkie. On one street corner residents handed out bananas and bottles of water to exhausted firefighters.
Parker said the firefighters had responded quickly. If not for the response and the use of neighbourhood watch walkie-talkies to co-ordinate the firefighting efforts, he said: “We may have lost as many as 20 houses.”
Most residents smiled as they came back to find their homes still standing. But for Pippa Richardson, whose home was gutted when the thatch roof caught alight, it was a tragic homecoming.
She said they had been renting the house out and the new tenants were in the process of moving in. But the Richardson family had planned to relocate to the upmarket Noordhoek home at the end of the year.
She choked back tears as she walked around the driveway of the smouldering wreckage. “I just don’t want to talk right now, I can’t, I just can’t.”
Neighbours had tried to extinguish the blaze, and then later the crew on a pair of fire trucks, but it was too late.
The City of Cape Town on Wednesday morning reported that more firefighters and equipment were on their way from George in the Southern Cape, while two South African Air Force helicopters have joined the fray to water-bomb trouble spots.
“A helicopter reconnaissance was carried out this morning and currently the fire has to be contained in three sectors: Chapman’s Peak on the Hout Bay side, Tokai Forest, and Noordhoek,” a spokeswoman said on Wednesday morning.
The fire was mostly high up on the mountain slopes and ground crews were dealing with sporadic flare-ups lower down.
Rain started falling mid-morning on Wednesday, helping to damp down areas which had been badly affected.
Two helicopters were water-bombing parts of Hout Bay to safeguard properties along Military Road, Hugo Street, and Avenue Suzanne.
A few properties along the Noordhoek side of Chapman’s Peak were also under threat earlier on Wednesday morning. For now, Chapman’s Peak Drive remains closed to traffic, as does Boyes Drive between the golf course and Old Boyes Drive.
The fire started in the early hours of Sunday above Boyes Drive in Muizenberg and subsequently spread over an extensive area including Ou Kaapse Weg, Chapman’s Peak, Hout Bay and Tokai as a result of strong winds.
The City’s Fire and Rescue Service, Disaster Risk Management staff and volunteers, Table Mountain National Park, Working On Fire volunteers, Wild Land Fire Services and the Volunteer Wildfire Services are helping to fight the fire.
One firefighter sustained burn wounds and is in hospital. Fifty two frail-care residents of a Noordhoek retirement village were treated for smoke inhalation.
Five homes have been damaged along Silvermine Road in Noordhoek. The Tintswalo Lodge at the foot of Chapman’s Peak was also damaged. At least 30 households and residents of the San Michelle Old-Age Home were evacuated in Noordhoek. Residents of the Noordhoek Manor Retirement Village were also evacuated but have since been able to return home.
Mass care centres have been set up at the Dutch Reformed Church in Kommetjie Road, Fish Hoek; at the Dutch Reformed campsite in Noordhoek; and at the Fish Hoek Community Hall.
Members of the public in affected areas are advised to hose down thatched roofs, keep windows closed and to call the city’s 107 call centre in the event of an emergency on 021 480 7700.