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Firefighters scramble again as blazes break out in and around Cape Town

Firefighters scramble again as blazes break out in and around Cape Town
Firefighters battle a blaze that began above Boyes drive in Kalk Bay on 17 January 2024. The fire moved further into the mountains behind the homes and was eventually contained by ground teams. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

The Western Cape government has increased its wildfire budget by R3-million as fire crews fight blazes that broke out above Kalk Bay and in Franschhoek on Wednesday. The budget was dangerously close to running dry – with three months of fire season still to go.

Local Government Minister Anton Bredell announced on Wednesday that the Western Cape’s wildfire budget had been bolstered from R16-million to R19-million, as firefighters battled new blazes in Kalk Bay and Franschhoek. 

Aerial water bombing attempts continue from Kalk Bay harbour to contain the fire blazing along the mountainside above Boyes Drive in Kalk Bay. (Video: Kerry Cullinan)

By 9 January, just over R1-million remained of the Western Cape’s initial budget of R16-million for wildfire responses this fire season. This means about R15-million was spent on wildfire responses in just over a month. 

Fire season in the province runs from December to the end of April. 

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Three helicopters collected water from Kalk Bay harbour and doused the fire above homes along Boyes Drive. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“We have experienced an extremely busy fire season so far, and currently we are battling fires on Boyes Drive in Muizenberg, and in Franschhoek. The Boyes Drive fire is made extremely challenging due to high winds and inaccessible terrain. 

Footage taken in Kalk Bay showing the fire spreading on the mountain above Boyes Drive, 17 January 2023. (Video: Stephen Lamb)

“The likelihood of more wildfires in the coming months is a real concern for us,” said Bredell.

He said that since December 2023, 837 wildfires had been reported to the Provincial Disaster Management Centre. 

“A total of nine fires were classified as major wildfires which extended over multiple operational periods,” he said. 

Additionally, 10,376 hectares of land has burnt to date in the Western Cape. 

“This number is set to go up as more damages are reported and current fires are included,” said Bredell.

Just before 1pm on Wednesday, City Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson Jermaine Carelse issued an alert that firefighters were attending to vegetation alight on the mountain slopes above Boyes Drive and announced that the road had been closed between Old Boyes Drive and Clairvaux Road in Kalk Bay.

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A helicopter skilfully collects water from Kalk Bay harbour. People had a close view of the aircraft scooping up water to put out the fire above Boyes Drive. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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Two helicopters collecting water from Kalk Bay harbour. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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A firefighter briefs his team stationed on Ou Kaapse Weg on where they estimate the fire is headed. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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A firefighter observes the blaze from Boyes Drive. A crew was on foot and various teams were on standy to protect the homes. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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The fire was quickly doused near homes on Boyes Drive thanks to the aerial firefighters. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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A helicopter flies above a firefighter stationed at Boyes Drive in Kalk Bay. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Emergency services were alerted at about 11.30am on Wednesday and six firefighting vehicles with more than 30 firefighters were dispatched. 

Table Mountain National Park also deployed ground crews to assist, while three helicopters water-bombed the areas inaccessible to ground crews.

Just before 5pm, Carelse said the swift reaction by firefighting crews ensured that the fire on the slopes above Boyes Drive was contained and the road was reopened. 

However, wind conditions were not favourable and firefighters were battling a flare-up on the Kalk Bay side as well as the head of the fire over the mountain above Boyes Drive.

At 2.30pm, aerial support was shut down and resources were reduced. Ground crews will work through the night.

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Smoke causes poor visibility on Ou Kaapse Weg. The fire was contained in the mountains before it became visible from the road. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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Smoke seen from Boyes Drive heads towards Ou Kaapse Weg. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

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The path of the fire above Boyes Drive in Kalk Bay. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

The Kalk Bay fire comes just under a month after an inferno which began on the slopes above Simon’s Town ripped through 1,140 hectares of veld, forcing the evacuation of residents from Scarborough, Misty Cliffs and along the Glencairn Expressway.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Simon’s Town smoke envelops city — firefighters near Scarborough, Glencairn, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town continue to fight flames

The Simon’s Town blaze – the biggest wildfire to occur in the Mother City in 2023 – saw the city launch the largest coordinated attack yet on a fire line in the metropole. 

Increased heat, windy conditions and dry vegetation created ripe conditions for a higher risk of fire, Daily Maverick’s Kristin Engel reported

The South African Weather Service’s senior forecaster, Henning Grobler, said a strong southeasterly wind persisted in Cape Town on Wednesday, with wind speeds gusting at 28 km/h for the morning and 37 km/h from the afternoon into the late evening. A maximum temperature of 28°C was forecast.

Very similar conditions are expected for Thursday, with the wind likely to drop during Wednesday night and then pick up again in the same southeasterly direction at 25 km/h. Maximum temperatures are also expected to rise to 32°C on Thursday and drop slightly to 31°C on Friday.

On Wednesday afternoon, SANParks spokesperson Lauren Clayton said the fire was intensifying due to strong winds and urgently issued a warning for hikers in the central section of Table Mountain National Park to descend.

With helicopters flying back and forth above her home, Kalk Bay resident Kerry Cullinan told Daily Maverick: “Our community group was told not to go on Boyes Drive because there’s a fire that started just above a house between St James and Kalk Bay… 

“Three helicopters have been constantly collecting water from the harbour and bombing the fire. It’s not coming towards Kalk Bay and St James anymore… the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, towards Ou Kaapse Weg. The smoke is really thick on that side.”

Franschhoek fire

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While firefighters battled the Boyes Drive fire, the Cape Winelands District Municipality’s Fire Services and partners responded to a blaze in Franschhoek that was burning towards private properties. (Photo: Cape Winelands District Municipality)

While firefighters battled the Boyes Drive fire, the Cape Winelands District Municipality’s fire services responded to a blaze in Franschhoek at about 3pm. The fire appeared to be heading towards private properties.

Municipal spokesperson Jo-Anne Otto said, “The fire is burning in an aged plantation in the area above the Robertsvlei road… Fire teams are engaged in active firefighting.”

Just before 6pm, the fire, managed by Cape Winelands District Municipality’s Fire Services and partners, was partially contained.

The main fire line causing concern was fully contained, leading to the stand-down of aerial support at 4.30pm. A few spot fires, combined with increasing wind speeds, are still worrisome as they could lead to flare-ups.

Crews will remain on-site overnight for monitoring and mopping up activities. The current firefighting presence includes seven fire vehicles and three ground teams from NCC Environmental Services, totalling 45 personnel.

Climate change projections for the Western Cape, and Cape Town in particular, suggest generally worsening conditions for fires in future, with longer, warmer and drier summers and more frequent southeasterly winds. DM

Absa OBP

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  • Miles Japhet says:

    The private sector in the shape of Insurers, Lombard, Hollard, Santam, Bryce and OMI, for the past 3 years have provided multi-million funding for a Quick Response Helicopter capability. This allows them to fly immediately, without first gaining permission from the relevant Municipalities, that has sometimes meant them being too late to control fires eg the UCT fire.
    Another example of why Public/Private partnerships are the way forward for South Africa!!🇿🇦

  • Ben Harper says:

    Has it been established yet how many of the fires were started by arsonists and vagrants?

    • Greeff Kotzé says:

      I would think that that would be nearly impossible to establish to a legal standard, in the absence of an eyewitness (unlikely), CCTV footage (again, unlikely, given the location) or perhaps finding traces of a fire accelerant having been used. And the use of the latter would not be necessary when weather conditions are already favourable to wildfires — it really just needs a spark to start.

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