PYROCENE CAPE

Wildfire strips vulnerable residents of their meagre possessions

By Leila Dougan 19 April 2021

Firefighters battle a raging fire in Vredehoek, Cape Town on 19 April in gale-force winds and heavy smoke. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Some Cape Town residents who live in a small informal settlement on the outskirts of the City Bowl have lost their belongings to the blaze.

The wildfire that started in Cape Town on the morning of Sunday, 18 April continued throughout the night and into the next day. The fire spread along Table Mountain, with thick smoke engulfing Zonnebloem, District Six and the City Bowl. Daily Maverick visited Walmer Estate on Monday, where firefighters were putting out the last few flames close to a small informal settlement.

Firefighters in Walmer Estate put out the last few flames close to a small informal settlement on Monday, 19 April 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“We’ve been working the whole night, it’s very tiring,” said a firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous. “We managed to get some of the people in the settlement evacuated but some of their structures burnt down. We don’t know how many people live there – maybe 50-plus.” 

Two women sat bracing themselves against the thick, black smoke, hoodies pulled over their heads and scarves wrapped around their mouths. One of the women, who gave her name only as “Veronica”, said they managed to escape the blaze with very little.

“We got our blankets out, but nothing else. We don’t know where we are going to sleep, but we can’t leave our stuff behind.”

Residents from a small informal settlement in Zonnebloem, Cape Town sit with their only remaining belongings on Monday, 19 April 2021 after their shack was engulfed by flames. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Another firefighter, who also did not want to be named, pointed to the area above the highway, towards the Cape Practical Pistol Club shooting range, saying:

“See that black smoke? It’s from the shooting range; you can smell the tyres from here. I hate fire. It’s so destructive.”

A resident from a small informal settlement in Zonnebloem, Cape Town runs through thick smoke on Monday, 19 April 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

At a media briefing at the Roeland Street Fire Station, the head of public awareness and preparedness for the Disaster Risk Management Centre, Charlotte Powell, said people living on the fringes in small settlements around the city were a concern.

City of Cape Town Mayco member for safety and security JP Smith with Charlotte Powell, head of Public Awareness and Preparedness for the Disaster Risk Management Centre, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Incident Commander Arlene Wehr and Mayor Dan Plato during their media briefing at the Central Fire Station in Roeland Street, Cape Town on Monday, 19 April 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“We have liaised with the city’s social development and they will make accommodation and space available in safe spaces and shelters and also collaborate with NGOs to create spaces for the vulnerable,” said Powell. She added that while they do not know how many people have been affected, anyone who is “picked up” will be advised where they can go for shelter.

‘Because of the increasing densification around the urban edge, every few years we have one of these massive mountain conflagrations. You have a large national park surrounded by residential and commercial properties all around it — that is a recipe for crisis,’ says City of Cape Town Mayco member for safety and security JP Smith. Smith briefed the media at the Central Fire Station, Roeland Street on Monday, 19 April 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

City of Cape Town Mayco Member for Safety and Security JP Smith said “densification around the urban edge” was a “recipe for crisis”, especially during fire season in Cape Town when high winds carry and feed flames.

“The density has increased, as more people have built properties, and the homeless crisis on top of that with people sleeping in those green spaces, this means we have regularly had those fires. This strip is a particularly problematic hotspot from Vredehoek through to Philip Kgosana [Drive] because of the regular vagrant fires that are caused there.

Firefighters began fighting the blaze on the morning of Sunday, 18 April 2021, which continued into the night and the following day. Many of the firefighters Daily Maverick spoke to said they were ‘exhausted’ after working through the night. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“All fires are caused by people and this is an opportunity to appeal to the public that if you’re irresponsible with a fire, this is the consequence. Whether maliciously or accidentally, it has consequences,” said Smith. He confirmed that a man in his thirties had been arrested in connection with the fire.

A firefighter carries a hose in Walmer Estate, Cape Town on 19 April 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Incident Commander Arlene Wehr said the blaze has been contained “for now” and they are continuing to monitor the situation.

A firefighter in Walmer Estate, Cape Town on 19 April 2021. Behind him is a small settlement where a community has erected several shacks. Some of the structures were razed in the blaze. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“We are monitoring the wind situation; if there are any changes, we will call in additional resources. Containment means [the fire] isn’t spreading any further, but there are possibilities of flare-ups. The containment means there is no further spread at the moment,” said Wehr. DM

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