Pyrocene Cape

SANParks traces Oudekraal blaze to homeless camper

By Tiara Walters 19 December 2020

The Oudekraal fire raging before it was contained at 4am Friday morning. Photo: Volunteer Wildfire Services

A Thursday inferno on the Atlantic seaboard is the latest in a series caused by illegal fire starters this season. About 25 hectares were burnt.

Tiara Walters

Just as Table Mountain National Park’s fire investigator determined the cause of Thursday’s fire on the slopes outside Camps Bay, yet another blaze has ignited next to the original burn area.

Speaking to Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit on Saturday, Rob Erasmus of Enviro Wildfire Services, the park’s independent fire investigator, said the Thursday fire had been started by a homeless person on private property near the park.

“The Oudekraal fire investigation has been completed and the person responsible has been identified,” said Erasmus.

“It was caused by an unattended vagrant fire,” he added. “The cause of the fire is regarded as accidental negligence. We have photographs of the origin of the fire and the person’s photograph and name. He has admitted to having made the fire there. It’s now up to the landowner to decide what action to take. Another homeless person has already rebuilt a shelter within 24 hours, confirming that this is a well-used site for vagrants.”

While Victoria Road was closed to traffic, firefighting crews from the City of Cape Town, Table Mountain and Working on Fire fought the blaze in strong winds, finally containing it at about 4am Friday morning. Philip Prins, head of Table Mountain National Park’s fire department, confirmed to Our Burning Planet that the Thursday blaze had burnt 25 hectares of vegetation.

In the meantime, another blaze had started up on Saturday afternoon in a fresh bout of strong winds. At the time of writing, fire crews were on the scene. The owner of the affected property outside Camps Bay was not immediately available for comment at the time of publication.

This week Our Burning Planet reported in a special investigation that ill-timed blazes may be damaging the Mother City’s most famous natural landmark.

During the previous summer season over 2019/20, there were 108 fires in the park, according to official fire-investigation data seen by Our Burning Planet. The majority of these blazes — 58% — were associated with fires kindled for cooking, heating and socialising. In a few cases, arson looked to be the cause.

Additionally, investigations led by Erasmus attributed 32% to “malicious” origins; while 9% were sparked by “negligence”. Much of it starting over summer weekends on the front of Table Mountain as well as adjacent Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, crews contained close on 90% of fires within 90 minutes.

“A lot of vagrants come in during the night, or late in the afternoon,” explained Prins. “They move from the city into the park and, early the following morning, they move from the park back towards the city, and so it continues.”

Starting campfires in the park, except in a minimal number of designated picnic spots, is illegal. Visitors may only stay overnight in recognised facilities.

Yet Prins said that, in past weeks alone, crews had responded to and extinguished illegal “vagrant-caused” fires in various parts of the park, including Tokai and Red Hill towards the centre and south; and Oudekraal and Deer Park near the park’s northern sections.

The all-female ‘Juliet’ crew battling the blaze outside Camps Bay this week. Photo: NCC Wildfires

Fanned by a raging southeaster, Deer Park’s “Halloween fire” on 31 October has so far proven the largest of the spring/summer blazes to be traced to illegal campfires. To contain the inferno, which singed 50 hectares 0n the mountain’s frontal slopes, it would take 16 fire trucks heaving with up to 6,000 litres of water per tank, plus crews from across the firefighting spectrum: city, park and volunteer corps.

Also this week, a “devastating fire” had torn through an informal settlement in Masiphumelele, destroying more than 1,000 homes and displacing more than 4,000 people. According to Our Burning Planet sister unit Maverick Citizen, the fire had reportedly spread “fairly close” to the neighbouring wetlands. The cause of the fire was still unknown. DM/OBP

In the event of a veld or wildfire, click here for SANParks’ emergency guidelines. 

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  • It is remarkable that people want land but unable to responsibly live on it. How long has fire been in use in Africa? It’s imperative land occupation comes with responsible use as it effects your neighbours lives and homes.

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