Cape Winelands wildfire contained, two crew injured
The Cape Winelands District Municipality’s Fire Services together with partners CapeNature battled a wildfire in the mountains above Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the Western Cape for eight days. The fire was originally reported in the Overberg mountains on Sunday, 21 February 2021. In the late afternoon of Monday, 22 February 2021, the fire crested the mountain peaks into the Banhoek Mountains outside Franschhoek. During the next few days, the fire spread to the Berg River Dam area. The fire teams diverted the fireline away from the R45 and farmland on Thursday. The fire was around 68 percent contained by Thursday late night, however, the combination of a change in the wind direction and intensity allowed the fire to crest the mountains and travel into the more populace Jonkershoek Valley.
At this stage, the incident command activated Provincial Disaster Management, local law enforcement teams from Stellenbosch Municipality as well as the Disaster Management division of the Cape Winelands District Municipality (CWDM). A public notice was issued to encourage residents to cooperate with authorities should evacuation become necessary.
Fire fighting efforts were hampered by the dense smoke, which also prevented the deployment of aerial resources.
The next two days, 26 and 27 February 2021, proved to be the two most challenging days of the battle. The wildfire, which was fuelled by dense, aged, mixed vegetation and a stiff breeze, quickly spread down the inhabited Jonkershoek Valley. All efforts were focussed on diverting the fire line away from residential infrastructure. Late on Friday afternoon, the wind shifted slightly allowing the deployment of aerial resources, which immediately started water bombing the areas in the more inaccessible areas.
In the early hours of Saturday, a small group of families who reside in an informal settlement in the Jonkershoek Valley, were relocated to a community hall. This decision was made based in community safety protocols and was not a forced evacuation. The families returned to their homes later the same day.
The fire continued spreading from the Jonkershoek area, across the mountains over Bothmaskop, following a path past Coetzenberg and into the Blaauwklippen area. The fire line ran virtually parallel to the Blauuwklippen road.
At this stage of the fire fighting operation, there were 236 fire fighters, groundcrews and team leaders distributed in various high-risk areas, supported by 13 CWDM, three CapeNature, six Stellenbosch Municipality and three West Coast District Municipality purpose-built fire apparatus. The aerial resources were made up of two Hueys, CWDM/CapeNature, one Blackhawk from Provincial Disaster and an Oryx, that the SANDF made available.
Despite dire predictions of strong winds, the wind died completely in the late afternoon of Saturday and the teams made excellent progress during the night’s cooler weather. A flare-up in the previously contained Jonkershoek Valley occurred during the early evening. However, this was swiftly attended to by a combination of ground and aerial resources.
By Sunday afternoon many of the teams were able to stand down and return to their workstations. The wind has stayed calm and unexpectedly the area experienced a light shower, which certainly aided damping down efforts. The CWDM Fire Teams, contracted ground teams and the various teams from CapeNature continued with the management of flare-ups, monitoring and mopping up operations for the next 48 hours.
The fire was declared 99 percent contained on Tuesday, 2 March 2021, however, a smouldering fireline in an inaccessible area of Banhoek kept two of CapeNature’s crews busy for a while longer as this fireline proved to be difficult to access.
The CWDM Fire Services were able to report that through incredible team efforts, dedicated fire fighters, ground team members and a clear understanding of roles, no loss of life, livelihood or damage to property was reported. Sadly, two of CapeNature’s field officers, sustained serious burn injuries and remain in hospital for surgery and treatment. We wish them a speedy recovery and thank the health care staff care for them.
“It is through a combination of effective planning, trained fire fighters and ground crews, well maintained equipment and the implementation of clear communication and excellent relationships with all role-players, that we were able to successfully manage this fire”, stated Wayne Josias, acting chief fire officer at Cape Winelands District Municipality.
The Incident Command team was made up of members from Cape Winelands District Municipality and contracted ground teams, CapeNature and their teams and the Winelands Fire Protection Agency (FPA) and Stellenbosch Municipality. The team was supported by assistance from Western Cape Disaster Management, the City of Cape Town, Overberg Municipality, West Coast District Municipality and the South African national Defence Force (SANDF).
The support from the residents of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch and further afield was overwhelming. The CWDM Fire Services, on behalf of all fire crews, offer our humble thanks for each donation.
Ground teams: Cape Nature; CWDM and City of Cape Town
One Blackhawk: 467 loads = 1 167 500l in 30,9 hours
Source: Jo-Anne Otto, deputy director: Communication Services, Cape Winelands District Municipality