Table Mountain wildfire in Cape Town spreads due to extreme weather conditions, destroying historic buildings and books, injuring four fire fighters
The wildfires that started on Sunday morning, 18 April 2021 on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town, destroyed several buildings on the campus of the University of Cape Town. These included the Jagger Library, as well as the restaurant at Rhodes Memorial, the historic Mostert’s Mill and several residential houses. Philip Prins, fire manager at Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) said the fire started at approximately 09h00 on Hospital Bend Philip Kgosana Drive in Cape Town. The total area burnt to date is ± 650ha. Incident commanders were Philip Prins of SANParks with a unified command with City of Cape Town and each organisation appointed its own Incident Management Team (IMT). Four fire fighters were injured and are receiving medical treatment.
The Rhodes Memorial Fire was reported at 09h00am on Sunday morning. Table Mountain National Park contracted wildfire crews (NCC Wildfire) from the Newlands Firebase were dispatched immediately. Philip Prins coordinated the fire fighters on the line from Table Mountain National Park, NCC Wildfires, Working on Fire, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services and Volunteer Wildfire Services. City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue had more than 150 fire fighters deployed from various stations.
Prins said, “Where the fire started, vegetation consist of mixed fynbos and scattered pine trees as well as some stacks of previously felled dead and dying pine trees. The weather conditions forecasted for Sunday were an Orange FDI, 37 degrees Celsius, light to moderate North Easterly wind and very low humidity.”
“TMNP immediately dispatched its ground crews from the Newlands Fire Base as well as from the Kloofnek Conservation Depot in the City Bowl. A total of 30 fire fighters responded within 20 minutes after fire was reported. The response included three fire fighting vehicles with 5 000 litre capacity as well as one vehicle with 1 200 litre capacity. Fire fighting operations continued day and night from when the fire started until Wednesday afternoon at 13h30 when the fire was declared as contained.”
“The fire damaged various infrastructure inside and outside the Park; within the Park the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant and Tearoom was completely destroyed. One fire fighter from NCC, which is contracted to SANParks, was injured.”
“Due to strong the south easterly wind and low cloud cover it was not possible to dispatch any aerial resources on Monday. Also, the fire burnt in very inaccessible areas, which made it very difficult for ground crews to access. Once the fire moved into the Pine trees, numerous spot fires were encountered, which caused the fire to spread rapidly in a southerly direction as a result of the wind and slope. The heat from the fires created its own wind system, which lead to extreme wildfire behaviour.”
Charlotte Powell of City of Cape Town Disaster Risk Management Centre said on Monday, “Evacuations were done at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as well as the following locations in Vredehoek: Peppertree Road, Ministerial Estate, Disa Park, Mountain View complex. All schools in Vredehoek were asked to evacuate. The City’s Air Quality Monitoring Unit has recorded very high levels of Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM 2.5) at the Foreshore Monitoring Station. Asthmatics and other sensitive receptors with respiratory conditions are urged to stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed or alternatively leave the area if possible and to seek medical attention if respiratory distress is experienced. DRMC staff and volunteers distributed donations from the public to command posts along the fire-line.”
Table Mountain National Park and the City of Cape Town had four Hueys and a spotter, three Working on Fire contracted choppers and a Leading Edge Aviation Huey from Stellenbosch on Sunday dropping water via Bambi buckets while the wind was too strong for any aerial attack on Monday. On Tuesday the aerial support included three Hueys joined by two Oryx’ from the South African Air Force and a spotter aircraft. The South African Air Force also made available two helicopters to assist with the fire. The SAAF Oryx flying hours 9,4 hours and they made 103 drops. The Hueys and spotter clocked 58,44 flying hours with 630 drops.
Rob Erasmus of Enviro Wildfire Services has been appointed to investigate the incident. At this stage the cause of the fire is regarded as ‘abandoned vagrant fire’, said Prins.
South African National Parks (SANParks) would like to thank and praise the bravery and dedication of, amongst others, the fire fighters, volunteers, City of Cape Town (CoCT) Fire and Rescue Services and the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) rangers in their efforts to contain the fire. “The devastating fires across the TMNP have brought home the value of partnerships and working together as a community to manage this National park we all love. Without the collective efforts of the 125 TMNP rangers, the 170 fire and rescue workers, the South African National Defence Force, City of Cape Town personnel, Law Enforcement and the many volunteers, the damage, as devastating as it was, could have been much worse,” says SANParks CEO Fundisile Mketeni. “The immediacy of the reactions of fire fighting teams from all areas of the Western Cape, their skill, courage and commitment ensured that the fire was mostly contained by Monday afternoon.”
“We also thank our 120 rangers who manage and protect this vast area of more than 28 000 hectares, recognising the many challenges they face. To manage an urban park stretching from Signal Hill to Cape Point, we rely heavily on our communities to assist, alert and raise the alarm on disasters like this, which is exactly what happened on Sunday morning,” says Mketeni.
SANParks also commends the generosity shown by the community of Cape Town to those fire fighters and also to those most affected by the fire, perhaps most notably the 4 000 University of Cape Town students who had to be evacuated from their residences. “The outpouring of support on an emotional level was matched if not surpassed by the generosity of donations of food, water and other necessities from businesses and communities,” concludes Mketeni.
SANParks will facilitate a platform for a series of discussions on the complex topic of managing fire in the park.
Sources: Philip Prins, Manager: Fire, Table Mountain National Park; Jermaine Carelse, spokesperson, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service