Heinrich Adonis raced up the steep mountainside behind his house through once thick bush to reach the ridge where the flare landed. Mike Behr
Cape Town - Death threats and intimidation have hounded the volunteer firefighter who risked his life trying to extinguish the Betty’s Bay New Year’s Eve fire and then helped cops bring the suspected arsonist to book.

“I’ve been told that the suspect is saying that he’s going kill anyone who told the cops that he started the fire,” says landscaper Heinrich Adonis, 30, from Betty’s Bay’s Mooiuitsig suburb where he grew up.

Adonis, who watched in horror as a flare fired from a few houses down torched the mountainside above his home minutes into 2019, said after Sheldon April’s arrest by Kleinmond police, his uncle threatened him with assault. 

“He used ugly words. He told me he’s going to kick me in my ma se p**s.”

But Adonis is undeterred. “I don’t give a sh*t. I’m not scared of him or anyone else in his family. What is wrong is wrong and what is right is right. That’s the way I was raised. I don’t see how a wrong can be right. This is why this country is in such a mess with all this corruption. People don’t want to stand up and do the right thing.”

Shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Adonis left the family party at a nearby relative’s house in Mooiuitsig to fetch his cellphone.

As he reached his stoep, he saw a flare shoot up into the sky from in front of the suspect’s house “like a space rocket”.

While it hung in the light breeze above him and burnt out, a second flare shot up from the same position. Except, this one got swept towards the mountain slope in the Cape Nature reserve at the back of his house in a wind that suddenly picked up.

Thinking “hier kom k*k”, Adonis watched as the flare then landed close to the mountaintop and set the dry bush alight.

Acting on instinct even though he had had a few drinks, Adonis pulled on his boots, grabbed his reflective jacket and beater and “ran straight up that mountain”.

Taught by his father how to fight wildfires since he was little boy, Adonis said when he sees a wildfire “I run towards it because I know how fires operate and how to tackle them safely without water.”

By the time he reached the rapidly spreading blaze, it was the size of football goal area.

For 10 minutes he beat the line alone until four other volunteers from Betty’s Bay arrived. By then the wind was blowing aggressively. “I could see we had one moer of a fire on our hands. It was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other shout.”

Because the fire was spreading in a widening V, left towards Mooiuitsig and right up the mountain, Adonis and a colleague beat the left flank while the others fought the right.

For the next four hours they chased the fire deeper and deeper into the reserve.While managing to stop it running down into Mooiuitsig and possibly jumping the now scorched road into Betty’s and Pringle Bay, Adonis says they had no hope of stopping its rampage.

On Saturday, up on the moonscape slopes above his house, Adonis pointed to where the flare landed and tossed a stone about 10m to show how close he was to the flames “that were lying flat, the wind was blowing so hard”.

Besides the burns risk, Adonis says he also had to watch his step. “At some spots I would stop and turn around and suddenly pull up my handbrake. The drop was steep and far.”

Adonis said he was infuriated that no one in his community came to assist him until more firefighters arrived on the scene. 

“I risked my life but everyone just stood and watched. Sheldon should’ve at least helped me. We could have done more if he and others had.”

On top of that, “the suspect’s family wanted to keep who started the fire a secret. That’s why the cops had to offer a reward. No one would come forward. And when the cops arrived to arrest Sheldon, they hid him.”

Doing his civic duty - something which had been drummed into him by his father, a municipality plumber for 27 years - Adonis made a statement to police, pointing out where the flares were fired from and their origin.

“Around Christmas time I saw Sheldon with a flare. He was bragging about it with a few of us standing at the back of my neighbour’s house. It was red and a bit longer and fatter than a litre Coke. He wouldn’t say where he got it from or what he was going to do with it.”

It never raised a red flag about the wholesale destruction that later followed: more than 14000 hectares from Betty’s Bay to Hermanus razed to the ground along with 43 houses.

“Yoh! It’s almost like a nightmare. It’s unbelievable what those flares did. If I had known that, I would never have come out of the mountain. I would’ve stayed there until sunrise. I would have pushed myself and stayed on the line until I dropped.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve turned my back on a fire. But I was exhausted. By the time I got back home my legs were like jelly and my clothes were soaked wet with sweat..”

Weekend Argus