Betty’s Bay Fire burns 11 500ha in eight days
A fire that started on 1 January 2019 in the Overstrand Municipal area has burned for eight days and destroyed 11 500ha. Overstrand’s chief fire officer, Lester Smith, provides a detailed overview of the sequence of events leading up to the containment of the fire. Overstrand Fire and Rescue received a call of a mountain fire above Mooiuitsig, Betty’s Bay at approximately 00h04 on 1 January 2019. The first vehicle arrived on scene at approximately 00h16 and the initial assessment was that the fire was burning on a mountainous area, with no access for fire engine crews, meaning that ground crew fire fighters were needed. This led to the activation of ground crew by the incident commander. The ground team tried to contain the fire line, however, due to the steep terrain and south easterly wind, conditions for the ground team were unsafe.
At approximately 1h52 that night, a decision was made by Assistant Chief Schoeman and Mark Johns from Cape Nature to bring in two NCC Environmental Services ground teams and aerial resources at first light. The first NCC team arrived on scene at approximately 2h45 and was deployed on the right-hand side flank. At approximately 4h33, the fire continued to spread upwards into the steep mountain and in the early morning firefighting operations included ground and aerial resources.
Comments from the unified command:
The use of aerial fire fighting was a decision of Cape Nature as the fire was within their territory with the Overstrand Fire and Rescue playing a supporting role as a joint incident command. The objective of the Overstrand Fire and Rescue was to provide structural protection for Mooiuitsig and Houses in Disa Crescent above Betty's Bay, should the fire line descend down the mountain. Wind conditions on the first day of use were conducive for flying which allowed a satisfactory success in the late afternoon on 1 January 2018. From approximately 17h00, low cloud cover came in which disallowed the continued use of the helicopter. Good rains were falling in the Betty’s Bay area from approximately 18h00.
The wet conditions caused by the rain made firefighting conditions extremely unsafe on the higher steep slopes of the mountain therefore; the incident command (IC) decided to withdraw ground teams to the lower areas. During the night, rain continued for some time, dousing the fire lines to a controllable level. In the morning fresh ground teams were redeployed by incident command to continue working the fire lines. The weather left a thick layer of low cloud over the mountains making ground operation precarious for teams resulting in slow progress. As the cloud lifted, better assessment of the situation was possible where some continuing smouldering hot spots were identified significantly on the high level one, in the dense vegetation on the cliff face. Attempts by the ground teams to reach this spot were made but without success, it was then decided that a team would remain in the area to monitor.
Shortly after full daylight the wind conditions (East South Easterly) changed to storm strength (40kmph gusting at between 60 and 70kmph) and caused numerous flare-ups along both upper and lower fire lines which became overwhelming for the ground teams in place. They could not battle the flames which were burning back along the old fire line in a westerly direction. The incident command made a decision that the untenable conditions would not allow the use of aerial support and the conditions were monitored throughout the day however; the conditions continued to worsen as the prevailing wind speed increased during the day leaving no window for helicopters to be deployed.
The fire on both flanks continued to burn on the old fire lines, extra ground teams were deployed under very difficult conditions. Fire fighters had to work against the wind resulting in head confrontation with flame and smoke until they could create a break at the rear of the fire line in order to work in safe conditions. This was achieved with considerable effort and the teams eventually began making progress on the line however; at the same time many spot fires were caused at lower levels by flying embers resulting in the continuing spread of the fire lines adversely affecting the headway made by the ground teams as they had to divide into smaller units to reach spot fires.
Conditions throughout the day and night of 2 January 2019, remained relentless. Effective fire fighting was at all times extremely difficult resulting in the fire becoming a runaway wildfire as it reached the lower fynbos plateau.
Operational period: 3 and 4 January 2018
Additional resources were requested as the fire continued to spread in a Westerly direction towards Pringlebay. This was a wind and fuel-driven fire, with rapid fire spread. All of the structural damages occurred during the early hours of the morning, it was during this time that Overstrand Fire and Rescue lost a fire engine. This was also the first time that active fire fighting could have been conducted by the firefighters (fire engines) of Overstrand Municipality, Overberg District Municipality and Greater Overberg Fire Protection Association who assisted at the incident command post. Previous operational periods only made us of ground teams and aerial operations. During first light Overstrand utilised a Working on Fire (WoF) chopper and Air Force Oryx. The wind and fuel-driven fire burnt itself out along the coast in Pringle Bay against the young veld. Various fire lines were still active between Buffelstal area and Disa Kloof. These fire lines continued to burn away from Bettys Bay. Aerial and ground teams were assigned to these divisions.
Operational period: 5 and 6 January 2018
The active fire lines have become spread towards various divisions, each division had their own direction of fire spread.
Division A – Mountain head in Kogelberg Nature Reserve, uncontrolled fire spread.
Division B and C – Above Mooiuitsig towards Pringlebaai – No Active fireline
Division D – area between division A and E
Division F – Buffelstal – Fire contained in Mountain Slopes.
Division E – The fire line reach the R44 approximately 21h00 on the 5 January 2019, and Div E was established. (this division was in the jurisdiction of City of Cape Town)
Ground team worked the fire lines where possible, however; most of the areas were too steep. It was at this point that various role players became involved. It should also be noted that Overstrand Fire was only responsible for Division B and C.
Operational period: 7 and 8 January 2018
The majority of the fire spread continued into Division A, D, E. Although flare ups occurred in other divisions, on-scene crew members managed to extinguish it.
The fire remains active in some of the divisions. On the morning of 10 January 2019, approximately 11 500ha of veld has burned. The fire still remains active and the scene has not yet been declared safe. Overberg District Municipality, Cape Nature and City of Cape Town remain on scene.
Photo credits: Justin Sullivan and David Morris
Source: Lester Smith, Senior Manager: Fire and Rescue, Disaster Management and Security Services, Overstrand Municipality