Dozens dead in Southern African wildfires

At least 45 people were known to have died in three days of storm-fanned wildfires in South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, authorities and media reports said on Tuesday.

At least 40 people were killed and dozens injured in South Africa as fires destroyed dozens of homes and tens of thousands of hectares of bush, forest and farmland across three provinces.

One of the victims in KwaZulu-Natal was a young relative of African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, who was killed after being struck by a tin roof that winds tore off a building at Nkandla.

Authorities in the province late on Tuesday revised from 14 to 34 the number killed in the fires.

In the Western Cape roads around Cape Town were pounded by surging waves in the worst storms in the area in several years.

In Mozambique, at least four people were killed, 20 injured and one was unaccounted for after a wildfire gutted dozens of houses in a village in central Manica province, state television said.

The dead were an elderly woman and her three grandsons, who were burned in their hut. Hundreds of other villagers were homeless after their shacks were engulfed by the flames.

The fire, which was still raging on Tuesday and was eating into indigenous forest, was thought to have been started by a farmer who was clearing land to sow crops.

Wildfires are common in Southern Africa at the end of the dry winter season. At the weekend, the fires were fanned by winds reaching gale force in coastal and mountainous areas.

In Swaziland, fires ripping across tinder-dry hillsides killed at least one person.

Meanwhile, the KwaZulu-Natal health department praised the province’s health professionals as well as the provincial emergency medical rescue service (EMRS) for their efforts during the weekend.

Said spokesperson Sebe Zwane: “The situation could have been worse, it took selfless and dedicated service men and women like the members of the EMRS to ensure that the loss of life remains minimal.

“They worked long hours to ensure that lives were saved.
Their efforts are highly appreciated.”

While all of the EMRS’s figures were not available, Zwane said that in the uThungulu and Umkhanyakude district municipalities 56 people had been admitted to hospitals.

Ntambanana municipal manager Ray Mnguni said there was “very little left” in the municipality that had not been burnt. The rural municipality is located midway between the towns of Empangeni and Melmoth.

“I can’t even begin to estimate the damage. I am aware of 179 homes, but I can’t give you any estimates. It’s too early,” he said.

Mnguni said provincial officials, including KwaZulu-Natal Premier S’bu Ndebele, had visited the area on Monday, but that so far there had been no assistance forthcoming.

He said the municipality would be opening a bank account for people to make donations towards relief efforts. Details would be announced shortly.

Provincial agriculture minister Mtholephi Mthimkulu said he had instructed officials of his department to undertake an urgent stock take of the areas affected to determine what assistance his department would need to render.

He said campaigns to educate people about the dangers of fires would also be launched.

KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture Union chief executive Sandy La Marque said preliminary assessment had revealed that in Melmoth the damage was estimated at R296-million.

She said she still did not have figures for damage to commercial farmland in other areas.

The main opposition party in the province, the Inkatha Freedom Party, has criticised KwaZulu-Natal housing, local government and traditional affairs minister Mike Mabuyakhulu’s department. Mabuyakhulu is political head of disaster management in the province.

IFP agriculture spokesperson Henry Combrinck said: “Clearly very little if anything has been done in terms of prevention to help the areas and farmers that are likely to be affected by wildfires.

“For all its rhetoric, the provincial government has failed to deliver on its promises to help the victims of last year’s wildfires, let alone provide enough support for the current ones,” said Combrinck, in a statement on Tuesday.

Mabaso said: “This is not the time for pointing fingers nor scoring cheap publicity points.”

He said that “this is a time for action” and that members of the legislature should “utilise that avenue to raise issues”.

Combrinck said the IFP would demand that the ruling party provide the provincial legislature with “a comprehensive strategy detailing measures to help prevent large-scale wildfire damage in the future”. - Sapa-dpa, Sapa

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