Cape Town fire ‘largely contained’, evacuation orders remain in place

Several streets remained deserted in the wealthy urban areas of Cape Town’s Vredehoek and Zonnebloem on Monday afternoon, after many residents evacuated earlier in the day to escape the fire that started on Sunday and destroyed several historic landmarks. 

Heinrich Hanekom, a resident of Devil’s Peak Estate, was one of the few residents the Mail & Guardian could find when visiting the area on Monday. Hanekom’s home is situated within a few hundred metres of the slopes of Devil’s Peak, which was earlier enveloped in flames. 

Hanekom and his wife left the house with their dogs at 3am on Monday morning after being woken up by sirens — a response to the rapidly spreading fire, spurred on by a fierce southeasterly wind.  

“We heard the sirens from the fire brigade coming up the road. [We looked] through the back window to see how the mountain looked, and we were like, ‘we’ve got to get out of here’, because it looked like it was going to come down very quickly,” Hanekom said. “Last night when it started it was only at the very top of Devil’s Peak, but by morning the fire was aggressively coming down the mountain.”

Emsie Ferreira, a reporter at the M&G who lives near the affected areas, was forced to leave her home on Monday afternoon because thick smoke was making it difficult to breathe. 

It is believed that the Rhodes Memorial fire started on Sunday morning from a vacated vagrant fire above the M3 expressway (Philip Kgosana Drive) before it quickly spread towards the Rhodes Memorial, and from there to the Rondebosch campus of the University of Cape Town.  

But that scenario has been questioned after it was revealed that a suspect was arrested for alleged arson on Sunday evening. 

Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, told the M&G that should it be a case of arson, it would be “really, really sad”, particularly because two firefighters were currently being treated for injuries — one of them of a serious nature. 

Elaborating on the arrest of the suspect, Smith said that community members spotted three individuals moving through the bushes and alerted authorities, who found one man at the scene of the fire. 

While being questioned, the suspect allegedly admitted that he started the fire in the vicinity of Devil’s Peak, but it remains unclear if he was also responsible for setting the initial fire above Philip Kgosana Drive on Sunday morning. 

The South African Police Service is investigating the incident. 

As of Monday afternoon, dense smoke still engulfed the city as the ruthless southeasterly spread ash and smoke across Cape Town and surrounds. 

The city’s incident commander, Arlene Wehr, confirmed that the fire had been largely contained by early Monday afternoon, although reports were coming through of the fire having jumped the road towards the Bluegum forest, near  Tafelberg Drive. 

By then, more than 200 firefighters from the city, assisted by Working on Fire SANParks and the district municipalities of Stellenbosch and Winelands, had been fighting the flames in an effort to contain the blaze, because heavy gusts had prevented aerial support.  

Ground teams are monitoring possible flare-ups on Philip Kgosana Drive. Evacuated residents have been told not to return home yet because of the smoke and dust. 

This is a developing story. 

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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