Cape Town Pilots Brave Smoke, Heat in Worst Fires Since 2000

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Helicopters trailing giant buckets traversed the pall of smoke and low-hanging cloud blanketing Cape Town’s South Peninsula mountainside on Wednesday, dumping load after load of water on raging flames.

About 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of fynbos, indigenous shrubs, and other vegetation have been reduced to ash since fires broke out March 1, the worst such disaster since at least 2000 in South Africa’s second-largest city and biggest tourist attraction.

While no one has died, one fire fighter sustained burns, 52 people from an old-age home had to be treated for smoke inhalation, and homes, offices, historic wine farms and a hotel lodge were damaged or destroyed.

While some fires have been contained, they continue to burn in the Lakeside, Constantia Valley and Clovelly areas and are expected to take until the end of the week to extinguish, according to city officials and Working on Fire, the national fire management agency. Six helicopters and two planes dumped 2.2 million liters (580,000 gallons) of water in more than 2,000 drops, helping to stop the spread of flames in areas inaccessible to fire-fighting crews and their vehicles.

“Parts of the mountain look like a moonscape,” Fred Viljoen, a pilot with Working on Fire, said as he repaired a bucket cable in between flights at the Newlands fire station. “Whatever could burn has burnt.”

‘Dangerous Work’

Fanned by strong winds, the fire spread rapidly along the tinder-dry mountainside. While light rain fell on Wednesday, assisting more than 400 fire fighters and volunteers who have been battling the blazes, the helicopters were grounded in the late afternoon due to strong wind and poor visibility.

“It’s impossible to describe the temperatures up there,” said Michael Scott, a volunteer fireman who has had six hours sleep since the fires started. “It’s dangerous work. You have to use your judgment to know when to pull back.”

Four roads were closed on Wednesday, causing traffic congestion. Officials used scarves and masks to cover their faces.

The fire threatened some wine farms in the Constantia valley, which are in the midst of harvesting. At Buitenverwachting, a forest and one vineyard were destroyed, said Lars Maack, one of its owners.

Manor House

At Groot Constantia, where wine has been produced for 330 years, fire damaged some Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, Chief Executive Officer Jean Naude said in a statement. “Thankfully the wind has changed direction and is blowing the flames away from the historical core,” he said.

The contents of the manor house on the estate, built more than 300 years ago, were evacuated earlier as a precaution.

“There have been conflicting reports about the number of properties damaged,” and an assessment needs to be conducted, the City of Cape Town said in a statement on its website. “More than 500 residents have been evacuated from various areas since the fire started, but most have returned to their homes.”

Authorities are still battling flare-ups on Constantia Nek, a ridge between the Constantia valley and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, said Jean-Pierre Smith, the City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security.

“We’ve had a very rough night, and it was touch-and-go for many properties,” Smith said by phone. “The great concern is that the fire could leap across Constantia Nek and reach Kirstenbosch.”

Floral Kingdom

The 36-hectare Kirstenbosch gardens on the slopes of Table Mountain are home to more than 5,000 plant species and are part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

The annual 109-kilometer (68-mile) Cape Town Cycle Tour, which takes place on March 8, has been shortened to 47 kilometers because of the fires, Eyewitness News reported, citing the organizers. About 35,000 cyclists have entered the 38th edition of the event, the largest timed cycle race in the world.

Cape Town residents and businesses have rallied behind the fire-fighting efforts, donating more than 3 million rand ($250,000) through a fundraising campaign by radio station Cape Talk. Hundreds of people and businesses delivered drink and food to fire stations.

“There has been an overwhelming reaction of people wanting to help,” said Pia Mitri, who helped manage donations at the Newlands station. “The response has been fantastic.”