Tuesday, October 26News That Matters

Evacuations as firefighters battle wildfire in Cape Town

Officials say some residents of Cape Town neighbourhoods evacuated as ‘precautionary’ measure after fire sweeps across the slopes of Table Mountain.

People were evacuated from Cape Town neighbourhoods on Monday as a huge wildfire sweeping across the slopes of the city’s famed Table Mountain was fanned by high winds and threatened homes.

City authorities said residents of suburbs on the mountain slopes were now being evacuated as a “precautionary” measure.

The blaze had been largely contained on Monday, but firefighters were still battling to control it.

Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato said efforts were currently focused on the mountain above the Vredehoek suburb, with residents being evacuated “as a precautionary measure”.

“Strong winds are placing pressure on firefighting staff as it shifts the direction of the fire,” Plato told reporters.

Plato described the fire, which has so far destroyed more than 400 hectares (990 acres) of vegetation in the Table Mountain National Park, as one of the biggest in the city’s recent history.

Winds of up to 45 kilometres per hour (28 miles per hour) put water-bombing helicopters out of action and more than 250 firefighters were tackling fast-spreading flare-ups from the ground only.

Officials believe the blaze may have been started deliberately and a suspect was detained on Sunday evening.

Local media reports quoted city officials as saying they were monitoring for possible “flare-ups”.

“We are monitoring it because there are possibilities of flare-ups,” said Arlene Wehr, the incident commander at the city’s fire services. “It does not mean the fire is done.”

Wehr said the fire inflicted heavy damage on the city’s cultural heritage sites.

“With regards to the damage to historical buildings, it is quite substantial.”

The fire started early on Sunday morning on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, another part of Cape Town’s mountainous backdrop, forcing University of Cape Town students to evacuate residences as runaway flames set several campus buildings ablaze, including a library housing historic books and scripts.

Other properties damaged include the popular hikers’ restaurant at Rhodes Memorial and the thatch-roofed Mostert’s Mill, built around 1796 and South Africa’s oldest working mill.

“It is not only the historic buildings themselves that have been lost, but their contents and collections,” said the Cape Town Heritage Trust in a statement.

Two firefighters sustained burn wounds and were hospitalised for treatment, officials said, as a change in wind direction saw the fire spread rapidly towards the city overnight.

All schools in the Vredehoek area were asked to evacuate, a disaster management spokeswoman said, adding that homes used to accommodate travelling cabinet ministers in Walmer Estate were also being cleared.

A city councillor confirmed one suspect was arrested last night on Devil’s Peak after confessing that he had deliberately started an additional fire in the Vredehoek area. Authorities are investigating whether the man, who lives rough in the bush, was responsible for the first fire close to UCT.

Cape Town, which is coming to the end of its high fire alert season at the end of April, regularly battles fires close to the inner city, with the last large fire in 2020, although climate change and higher temperatures are a concern.