Table Mountain fire battle won

The fire that ravaged the lower slopes of Table Mountain’s Camps Bay side since Thursday afternoon was mostly contained by Friday morning, but the wind was key to winning the final battle, officials said.

“Yes, it is under control,” city emergency services director Pat Adams told reporters at the foot of the mountain. “There is no area under immediate threat.”

The fire, which broke out at about 4pm on Thursday, has so far destroyed 700ha of vegetation from Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge to Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, stopping just before the Twelve Apostles.

A female tourist hiker on the mountain died, apparently from smoke inhalation. No residential properties have been damaged.

Table Mountain National Park deputy manager Xola Mkefe said there was still some fire towards the top of Table Mountain on Friday morning, and firefighters were doing their best to stop it going over to the other side.

If it crossed the mountain top, the fire would threaten the back table (the mountains behind Table Mountain itself) with its dry vegetation, and possibly the suburb of Newlands.

“As long as the wind stays down, we are happy,” Mkefe said.

According to Adams, there was still some concern about fires in the Fresnaye, Sea Point and Oranjezicht areas.

But, if the wind played along, the blaze should be doused by sunset on Friday, Mkefe said.

Two fire-bomber helicopters have been fighting the blaze since 6am on Friday, after calling it quits at nightfall on Thursday.

About 500 people have been involved in the firefighting effort, including the city fire team, South African National Parks, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, South African Air Force helicopters and numerous volunteers.

Several off-duty firefighters reported to relieve their colleagues.

Search-and-rescue operations continued on Friday, although there was no indication of the number of people missing, if any, Adams said. Five cars had been found abandoned in the vicinity of the mountain.

Budget cuts

Cape Town mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo used the press conference to reject claims that the city’s fire-service budget had been cut.

In fact, the budget has been boosted by 100% annually over the past three years, from R8-million to R24-million.

Criticism of the city’s funding of the service was based on wrong information partly gleaned from a “wish list” the fire department had presented.

Regarding claims that firefighters are underpaid, Mfeketo said there are salary disparities among staff arising from the incorporation of seven former municipalities into one Cape Town metro council. These are being looked at.

She also denied claims that the fire service had obsolete equipment. There should always be investment in additional equipment, she said, but this has to be weighed against the city’s other important budget priorities.

She has been assured by the team fighting the current fire that it is coping with the resources at its disposal, Mfeketo said, accusing opposition political parties of playing the issue for their own gain and causing unnecessary anxiety.

“Isn’t the plight of this important department in our city being used as a political [foot] ball?”

Support

Mfeketo thanked firefighters for their work, and Capetonians for their moral and material support. One well-wisher had donated R3 000-worth of diesel.

The man accused of starting the fire appeared briefly in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on Friday. Anthony Cooper (36), a British tourist, faces charges of culpable homicide and arson. He is alleged to have flicked out a burning cigarette while travelling.

It is sad that an apparent act of carelessness has caused so much damage, stress and anxiety, disrupting the lives of so many people, Mfeketo said.

She said the true extent of the damage has yet to be calculated. Conservation area manager Dalton Gibbs said an estimated 40% to 50% of the world’s silverleaf tree population, found only on Lion’s Head and in Newlands, has perished.

Three cars are known to have been damaged. No permanent evacuations of residential properties were required.

Two people received treatment related to the fire—one civilian for a heart attack and a firefighter for nausea, officials said.—Sapa

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