Our Burning Planet

WESTERN CAPE WILDFIRE

Simon’s Town smoke envelops city — firefighters near Scarborough, Glencairn, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town continue to fight flames

Simon’s Town smoke envelops city — firefighters near Scarborough, Glencairn, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town continue to fight flames
Fish Hoek residents hose down the nearby hill to prevent flames from destroying their property on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

Cape Town’s largest wildfire this year has swept across thousands of hectares in the south peninsula since Tuesday. On Friday, firefighters continued to work the fireline, with no new evacuations since early that morning, only lingering concerns over sudden wind change.

The south peninsula remained enveloped in smoke on Friday, 22 December, as two extraordinary wildfires continued to burn across areas of Cape Town’s Deep South.

The first wildfire began on Tuesday on private land in the Simon’s Town, Castle Rock area, spreading quickly into Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) land.

Speaking at a media conference with Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Barbara Creecy on Friday afternoon, TMNP Integrated Fire Manager Justin Buchmann said the current position of the fire is above Misty Cliffs, near Scarborough. This fire, Buchmann said, has burnt across Plateau Road into the Cape of Good Hope section of TMNP, and charred an area spanning more than 3,300 hectares. 

This team of 300 men and women, together with six helicopters, have prevented any loss of life; they have secured all infrastructure and homes, and of course, they have also managed to contain this wildfire — Creecy

On Thursday night, the blaze raced towards Scarborough, forcing the evacuation of some Scarborough residents in the early hours of Friday morning. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape Town launches largest ever attack on Simon’s Town fires from Scarborough to Glencairn

According to Buchmann, the areas of concern currently include an area above Misty Cliffs, an area in the Cape of Good Hope section of TMNP, and an area above Smitswinkel Bay.

Baboons sit in the street in Cape Point on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

Ninety-seven households in Stonehaven, a housing estate on Glencairn Express towards Fish Hoek, were also evacuated after a second inferno erupted along the Glencairn Expressway. The fire, which began along the Glencairn Expressway, burnt towards Elsies Peak on Friday, with concerns mounting as it headed over the mountain towards Fish Hoek. Buchmann said “that fire has now been contained.”

People gather near Glencairn Expressway, where a helicopter collects water, on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

Firefighters along the Glencairn Expressway area. (Photo: Gunnar Oberhoesel)

Firefighting along the Glencairn Expressway area. (Photo: Gunnar Oberhoesel)

Emergency crew along the Glencairn Expressway area. (Photo: Gunnar Oberhoesel)

Wind an ongoing concern

However, both Buchmann and Creecy said the wind remained a concern.

“If the wind should rise or if it should change direction, then it means that everybody would once again be in a situation of danger,” said Creecy. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fire season — Crews battle Simon’s Town mountain fire days after devastating Dunoon inferno

The Minister said she too had evacuated her home on Tuesday evening, as a result of the fire.

Minister Barbara Creecy tells the media on 22 December 2023 that she has been personally affected by the fires that have taken place. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

“I have a private home in Simon’s Town, and when the fire came over the mountain, we moved out. It’s the most terrible feeling when you lock the door to your home and you don’t know if it will be there when you come back.”

Creecy hailed the “incredible efforts” of the firefighters who have been relentless in working the fireline. 

Glencairn Heights in flames on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

Firefighters along the Glencairn Expressway area. (Photo: Gunnar Oberhoesel)

“This containment of this fire [in the Glencairn area], and the battle against the fire, which is now in its fourth day, has been a combined effort with almost 300 firefighters working the fire lines at a time. The combined effort has included SANParks, Working on Fire, the service provider to the Department of Environment… as well as the City of Cape Town, the provincial government and, of course, teams of volunteers from Simon’s Town itself and further afield,” she said. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Simon’s Town blaze rips through 450ha, hundreds of firefighters continue battle

“When we visited the firelines earlier this afternoon, we saw firefighters who have been on the line since yesterday morning… This team of 300 men and women, together with six helicopters, have prevented any loss of life; they have secured all infrastructure and homes, and of course, they have also managed to contain this wildfire,” she continued. 

“If it was not for these efforts, the outcome would be considerably worse.”

At 3pm, pockets of fire flared up at the Navy‘s signal school in Simon’s Town, on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Gunnar Oberhoesel)

Five firefighters injured

Five firefighters have sustained injuries, with two being hospitalised for smoke inhalation, but no deaths have been reported. Remarkably, only a single derelict building has been damaged in the flames. 

Firefighting helicopers waterbombing regions near Cape Point on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

“But the situation remains of concern because we are not quite sure exactly what the wind will do later on today or tomorrow.”

The City of Cape Town’s Disaster Risk Management Centre (DRMC) said in a statement that while there have been no new evacuations since Thursday night, residents need “to be mindful that the situation can change at any moment”. 

Firefighting helicopters waterbomb the hillside in Fish Hoek on 22 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

The DRMC reminded residents in these areas to limit the amount of smoke entering their homes and to mitigate against any potential health impacts.

In areas affected by wildfires, the health impacts can be significant, affecting both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. These health impacts depend on factors such as the size of the fires, the types of vegetation burning, weather conditions, and the population density in affected areas. DM Additional reporting by Kristin Engel.

Update at 24 December, 2023: Relentless fire-fighting efforts continued through the weekend to douse hot spots and new flareups, the city of Cape Town reported. The operation was scaled down on Saturday and all evacuees had returned to their homes, with the use of a drone to identify hotspots. The Cape of Good Hope/Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park, previously closed due to safety concerns amid the fires in the Simonstown area, was due to reopen on Saturday to visitors.

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  • Esskay Esskay says:

    Cape Town firefighters are a remarkable and heroic team. Saved Western Cape many times.

  • Simon Evered says:

    My 100% commendation to all the firefighters and to the helicopter pilots and crew.

  • James Donald McNamara says:

    Huge THANKS to the heroic firefighters and animal rescue people (such as Animal Welfare Society of Philippi) who have done DO MUCH to keep all safe from this inferno…..

  • Jon Quirk says:

    So many, many heroes, but we are left with a doubt as to whether sabotage was behind at least some of the blazes; when will we ever, as a country, be clearly and unequivocally, on the same side?

  • Andrew Terhorst says:

    I am an ex-Welcome Glen resident living in Australia, where I am a volunteer firefighter. Fire always burns fast uphill. I wonder if backburning is being done around Misty Cliffs/Scarborough? The wind is confounding, but low-intensity backburns can create effective fire breaks. We are fortunate to be very well-resourced in Australia – volunteer brigades have 4WD trucks that can carry 1500L to 3000L (in addition to Landcruisers with 500L capacity) and plenty of aerial support in the form of helicopters and water bombing aircraft. I think the Western Cape should consider setting up local volunteer fire brigades. Local knowledge is essential. The terrain in the Peninsula is pretty inaccessible by vehicle, so investing in volunteer remote area fire fighting teams is good. Folk who enjoy trail running would be ideal volunteers.

  • Richard Cowling says:

    “Remarkably, only a single derelict building has been damaged in the flames”. I would argue that the absence of substantial fire damage has much to do with the eradication of alien vegetation from the Peninsula mountains over the past 25 years. The slopes around Simonstown, Glencairn and elsewhere were choked with Australian wattles and gums, which comprise a massive biomass of highly flammable vegetation. Fynbos fires are less fierce and easier to control.

    • Peter Slingsby says:

      Richard – I agree with you. One area that has not burned – perhaps unfortunately – is the ridge between Glencairn and Dido Valley, which is still covered in a massive dense mass of aliens [mostly rooikrans] up to 3m high. It won’t be a joke when that lot goes up.

    • Andrew Terhorst says:

      For sure, Richard! I wonder how fuel reduction patchwork burns would affect the fynbos ecology.

    • George 007 says:

      You are correct. The other saving grace was the fire breaks ringing Simon’s Town. I live in Mt. Pleasant and watched the flames coming down the mountain Wednesday night and then suddenly stop cold at the fire breaks. Whoever built these firebreaks deserves applause, too.

      Regarding the derelict buildings, the reporter failed to mention it was a Navy structure. Simon’s Town is littered with derelict Navy buildings. Shameful.

  • Derek Reynish says:

    Good morning from Nelspruit. Huge kudos to all the brave firefighters who have braved these horrendous fires. My question relates as to how the fires may have started – naturally or intentionally. There seems to be no mention of ‘how’ in the reports. Many thanks.

  • Pat Hemphill says:

    Huge Kudo’s to those Firefighters who put their safety on the Line to keep citizens unscathed…and mitigate injury to animals. You are heros!! 👏👏👍

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