Strong wind hampers efforts to contain Cape Town fire, more evacuations underway

Firefighters in Cape Town are still battling a raging wildfire on the slopes of Table Mountain as strong winds hinder efforts to contain the Rhodes Memorial Fire, which began on Sunday morning, 18 April. 

The fire has spread towards the residential area of Vredehoek, where evacuations are underway. Additional fire crews were also deployed to the area.  

“Precautionary evacuations have gotten underway in Peppertree Road in Vredehoek, after the fire spread towards the area overnight. We are also aware of some residents who opted to evacuate in other parts of the suburb, due to the smoke hanging over the area,” said Charlotte Powell of Cape Town’s disaster risk management centre. 

Ground efforts continue, with more than 250 firefighters from the City of Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), Working on Fire and the Volunteer Wildfire Services fighting the blaze. 

Philip Prins, TMNP fire manager, said they did manage to successfully contain a separate fire in Devils Peak in the High Cape Area late Sunday evening after receiving reports of another fire. 

Jermaine Carelse, the spokesperson for the City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue services, said the wind speed was predicted to increase throughout the morning, affecting aerial support that should have helped to contain the fire. 

Origin and fire damage

On Sunday morning, the City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue services responded to a vegetation fire above the M3 expressway, Philip Kgosana Drive, which quickly spread to Rhodes Memorial, and from there towards the Rondebosch campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). 

It is believed the fire originated from a vacated vagrant fire and spread because of temperatures over 30°C degrees and humidity of less than 10%. According to the TMNP, the rapid spread of the fire was fueled by old pine trees and debris in the affected area. 

Consequently, the fire engulfed historic landmarks. 

The Rhodes Memorial restaurant burnt down and the historic Mostert Mill — the oldest windmill in South Africa — was destroyed when the fire jumped the M3, also destroying two thatched-roof dwellings near Woolsack Drive. Parts of UCT, including the HM Pearson, Fuller and Jagger Library buildings were engulfed by flames. 

UCT students have all been evacuated from the campus to predetermined locations where they will be housed. 

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, UCT vice-chancellor, announced on Sunday that all academic activities had been suspended until at least Wednesday.

“No classes, tutorials, laboratory work or tests will take place on Monday 19 April or Tuesday 20 April. We will assess the situation and provide further updates before midday on Tuesday,” Phakeng said. 

Community support

As fire crews continue to battle the fire, members of the public have come forward to assist with donations. Food, water and essential items are being dropped off at the Roeland Street fire station and the Old Mutual West Campus in Pinelands, Cape Town. People donating food or other resources are advised to seal items in accordance with Covid-19 health protocols.

This is a developing story: updates will be posted during the course of the day.

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

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