PYROCENE CAPE

Apocalyptic fire reaps day of unforgiving destruction in Mother City

By Tiara Walters 19 April 2021

Plumes of smoke rise from a fire sweeping over Philip Kgosana Drive towards Rhodes Memorial and the University of Cape Town early on April 18. The blaze destroyed parts of Rhodes Memorial and UCT. (Photo: Misha Jordaan / Gallo Images)

Capetonians grieve the loss of priceless heritage treasures as fire rips across Table Mountain and the University of Cape Town campus.

Tiara Walters

Additional reporting by Victoria O’Regan

Efforts to contain the out-of-control wildfire that erupted on Table Mountain on Sunday morning at around 8.45 continued throughout the night.

The unforgiving inferno – suspected by Table Mountain National Park to have been ignited by an unattended vagrant fire – burnt down a restaurant at Rhodes Memorial and damaged multiple buildings at the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, including the 200-year-old Jagger Library.


NCC Wildfires, the firefighting services contracted to South African National Parks (SANParks), reported that the wildfire had started above Philip Kgosana Drive in the game camp area between UCT and the busy Hospital Bend junction near Groote Schuur Hospital.

Tearing up the mountain’s slopes towards Rhodes Memorial, it destroyed the iconic memorial restaurant, and then headed towards UCT’s upper campus where boarding students were evacuated to emergency accommodation. 

Huge plumes of smoke blanketed parts of the southern suburbs and drifted into the Cape Town City Bowl.

Plumes of smoke over Philip Kgosana Drive towards Rhodes Memorial and UCT. (Photo: Misha Jordaan / Gallo Images)
Firefighters prepare to battle a blaze that destroyed the nearly 200-year-old Jagger Library on the University of Cape Town campus on 18 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NIC BOTHMA)

From about 11.30am, an orange haze smothered parts of Rondebosch, Mowbray and Newlands, car headlights cutting through the gloom. Ash rained down from the sky, only to be whipped back into the air by strong gusts of wind.

Cars, heaving with bird cages, small pieces of furniture and suitcases, idled in congested traffic as residents fled their homes. Students, holding belongings, clustered on pavements in Rondebosch and Mowbray.

Anton Bredell, Western Cape minister of local government, environmental affairs and development planning, said provincial disaster management was monitoring the ongoing blaze.

“Four helicopters continue to water-bomb the fire lines and teams from the City of Cape Town, Working on Fire and SANParks” were working “non-stop to bring the fire under control”, he said.

Between 150 and 200 firefighters were on the fire line. Later, an additional firefighter was injured and taken to hospital. 

Bredell said the fire had jumped the M3 motorway earlier that afternoon, damaging infrastructure – including private homes and the irreplaceable 1796 Mostert’s Mill, the country’s oldest working windmill. 

“Full damage reports remained a work in progress”, while active firefighting efforts were being prioritised. 

“The public is urged to avoid the area and allow the authorities to do their work. The city has not called on any residents to evacuate,” Bredell said. “The public will be alerted immediately should the situation change and any evacuation be needed.”

Damage along the Rhodes Memorial road, as captured by Rob Erasmus of Enviro Wildfire Services, on 18 April 2021. Erasmus is Table Mountain National Park’s independent fire investigator. (Photo: Rob Erasmus / Enviro Wildfire Services)
A small portion of crews from Volunteer Wildfire Services fighting the fire. (Photo: Volunteer Wildfire Services)

The human element aside, natural fynbos blazes should ideally ignite, on average, every 15 years or so as a result of dry, hot, windy conditions interacting with mature, indigenous vegetation.

However, Table Mountain National Park noted that an “initial investigation” into the Rhodes Memorial fire had been done, and this “surmised that the origin of the fire is from a vacated vagrant fire”.

Several factors contributed to the fire’s rapid spread towards Rhodes Memorial, the park noted: blistering temperatures of up to 36°C conspired with an extreme fire-danger index that tipped into the red zone. 

Extremely low relative humidity exacerbated the situation.

“The fire created its own wind that further increased the rate of spread,” the park said. “The excessive amount of smoke and related updrafts made it impossible for the aerial support to slow the rate of spread.”

The park conceded that “one of the major contributors to the rapid rate of spread was the very old pine trees and their debris”.

Alien vegetation is both a fire and an ecological risk. UCT flora expert Tony Verboom, an associate professor, told Daily Maverick in December that human-caused fires exaggerated this weedy effect “by upsetting the natural competitive hierarchies and generating gaps that provide invasive weeds with an entry point”.

Daily Maverick has reported on multiple vagrant-caused fires on Table Mountain in recent summer seasons – far more than the park’s natural carrying capacity has evolved to withstand. 

Thick bushes, watercourses and public drinking points on the mountain’s lower slopes tend to be a haven for illegal campers, driven into such spaces by poverty, homelessness and hunger. Shallow, overhanging caves, set a considerable distance from the urban edge, tend to attract church groups carrying out fire ceremonies.

A faint orb of sun peers through smoke over the Rhodes Memorial road.  (Photo: Rob Erasmus / Enviro Wildfire Services)
The historic Mostert’s Mill was destroyed by fire on 18 April 2021 in Cape Town.

Fanned by a raging southeaster, Deer Park’s “Halloween fire” on 31 October was also traced to illegal campfires. To contain the inferno, which singed 50 hectares on 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.  

As for the previous summer season over 2019/20, there were 108 fires in the park, according to fire-investigation data seen by Daily Maverick.

The majority of these blazes nearly 60% were associated with fires kindled for cooking, heating and socialising. In a few cases, arson looked to be the cause. Additionally, the red wedge of the pie chart attributed 32% to “malicious” origins; some 9% were sparked by “negligence”. Much of it started 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 Philip Prins, fire manager for Table Mountain National Park. “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.”

Meanwhile, all academic activities at UCT were suspended for Monday and Tuesday.

“We will assess the situation and provide further updates before midday on Tuesday,” UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said on Sunday evening. “The safety of students and staff is paramount. For safety reasons, campus will be locked down and no one, other than emergency services, will be allowed access. We are all anxious about the extent of the damage to the Rondebosch campus. We will provide updates as soon as we are able to do so.”

As the damage is assessed in coming days, the emotional impact for many will linger.

Kylie Hatton, UCT communication and marketing director, told Daily Maverick: “It is devastating watching buildings that are my friends going up in flames.” DM/OBP

Energy bars, energy drinks and light snacks for firefighters can be dropped off at Roeland Street Fire Station in central Cape Town.

#UCTFire emergency relief fund

The public can donate essential items and food to students at Old Mutual West Campus, 91 Jan Smuts Road, Pinelands, Cape Town. Items must be sealed, in accordance with Covid-19 protocols. Financial donations can be made to (donor names can be included as references):

Account name: UCT Donations Account

Bank: Standard Bank of South Africa

Branch code: Rondebosch Branch, 025009

Account number: 07 152 2387

Swift code: SBZAZAJJ

Read Daily Maverick/Our Burning Planet’s recent in-depth fire coverage on Table Mountain here:

Pyrocene Cape: Inside the furnace of Table Mountain’s fire starters

SANParks traces Oudekraal blaze to homeless camper

Cape Town’s Halloween fire ignited by ‘vagrants’ — SANParks

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All Comments 7

  • This is just one of the many example the damage we humans do to our natural habitat with devastating consequences. My admiration for all the firefighters and their helpers.

  • What a tragedy, that the African Studies Library was destroyed! Thank goodness some treasures were saved “by the quick activation of roller doors” according to Mayor Plato.

  • Hate to say this, but its time the park got fenced. Literally hundreds of people are living on the mountain, and the degradation is relentless and ongoing. Sanparks has visibly neglected vast areas like Deer Park, creating a tinderbox situation. A disaster waiting to happen, which it did, yesterday

  • SANP is well aware of the problem of campers in this area of the mountain. Local hikers and cyclists regularly notify them and even extinguish abandoned vagrant fires. Its fire season now – on a day like Sunday, with high wind and heat you would expect SANP rangers to be on the mountain in that area actively looking for telltale signs of smoke and fire. I wonder if they were?

  • SANP have shown themselves to be ideologically conflicted in their duty of maintaining the boundaries of TMNP. They consistently turn a blind eye to trespassers taking up residence inside the park. The CoCT should take back the management of the park in the interests of conservation and heritage.

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