11 homes gutted in St Francis Bay fire
Fires that broke out in St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape on Thursday, 22 August 2019, gutted 11 homes before being extinguished, five hours later. Kouga Municipality chief fire officer, Dewald Barnard, says the fire was reported at 13h15 and St Francis Bay Fire Station crews responded. The initial fire was at 114 Lyme Street but spotted to 119 across the road after a short time. Chief Barnard says in the beginning, the wind direction was a favourable SW, keeping the flames away from the thatched homes but at around 15h00, the direction changed 90 degrees to WNW, sending fire towards the thatch. A Squirrel helicopter, Airbus H125, was ordered from Savannah Helicopters’ base in Port Elizabeth and immediately went to work dropping water on the fire.
Back up was called in from St Francis Bay Disaster Volunteers and Sarah Baartman West Fire Protection Association (FPA), who assisted with 33 Working on Fire crew as well as a crew of four fire fighters from the local Volkswagen plant. Chief Barnard says 26 Kouga Fire and Rescue Service crews were on duty, with other off duty fire fighters reporting for duty to assist as the fires spread. At one point, the fire spotted 182 metres, from number 2 to number 12 Peter Road.
10 municipal fire fighting apparatus were on the scene and used around 120 000 litres of water before the fires were eventually extinguished. Chief Barnard says the fire was contained by 18h15 that evening but dampening and mopping up operations were completed only at 15h00 the following afternoon.
Chief Barnard said thatch is particularly difficult to extinguish, as by its nature, it is made to repel water. Usually the thatch is pulled out to create a break but under the circumstances of this incident, it was deemed too labour intensive, as the crews battled several fires at the same time.
Christo Herselman, manager of Sarah Baartman West FPA, said he oversaw the WoF crews and local Fire Management Units (FMUs) who contained the grass fire surrounding the buildings as well as wetting roofs of houses that were not alight, thus preventing fire from spreading. He says several structures were saved that way. Herselman says the crews stayed positive throughout the incident and there was incredible cooperation between all the different agencies.
Chief Barnard said that a total of 85 fire fighters from various agencies were involved in fighting the fire.
South African Police Services (SAPS) believe an act of arson lies behind the St Francis Bay blaze. Police have released a statement saying they are on the hunt for two men, believed to have been calming bees with smoke when the fire broke out.
“On Thursday around 13h00, a woman alleged that she saw two men with a beehive in the open field, behind Lyme Road North, St Francis Bay,” said police spokesperson Sergeant Majola Nkohli. The witness said one of the men was wearing a blue overall and the other was pushing a bicycle. “It is alleged that upon seeing that smoke was turning into fire, both men ran away,” said Nkohli.
Sources: Dewald Barnard, chief fire officer of Kouga Municipality; Christo Herselman, manager of Sarah Baartman West FPA; IOL; ENCA and Chris Scott’s Photography. Aerial photos taken by Vincent Lyons