KZN counts the cost of fires

2008-09-01 00:00

THE death toll from the wildfires that ravaged KwaZulu-Natal and destroyed millions of rands worth of farm land has risen to 14.

Three people died in the flames at Melmoth, three in Nkandla, four in Ntambanana, two Umhlabuyalingana, one in KwaHlabisa and one in Kwasane, all in the northern parts of the province.

In Nkandla, it is believed that a nephew of ANC president Jacob Zuma was among those who died.

More than 59 people suffered serious injuries — 45 in the uThungulu District. More than 636 homes were also destroyed in the fires, which are still burning in some parts.

Thousands of hectares of timber plantations and grazing land were damaged in the midlands and surrounding areas.

Farming communities in the midlands area spent the past three days fighting fires bravely, KZN Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) president Robin Barnsley said yesterday. Barnsley criticised the government for failing to provide enough support.

“Little or no support has been forthcoming from municipalities and their officials,” he said.

Yesterday, the fires were still threatening more damage to timber plantations and grazing land and farmers in the Dargle area continued to fight the flames.

Working on Fire programme manager Fred Mokgope said WoF’s firefighters received 41 calls in the province over the weekend. “It will take months to tally the damage,” said Mokgope.

In Melmoth, the losses were estimated to be more than 5 000 ha of commercial timber, three hectares of avocado plantations, 113 ha of sugar cane, farming implements including a bakkie and tractor and two homesteads.

An estimated 500 ha of land were burnt in Dargle alone, affecting more than 10 smallholdings.

In Winterton, it was reported that some 600 ha of land, livestock and equipment were lost to the fire. Bergville and Richmond were also affected by the fires.

Mondi and Sappi timber growers have had significant losses.

In the Ntambanana area, Barnsley said, more than 10 000 ha were burnt and 144 homes lost.

He said that communal farmers and people living in trust areas have been severely affected by the fires.

He called on government to be “proactive and not reactive, to act swiftly with disaster aid and relief in terms of the agricultural sector”.

While the weather is expected to cool in the middle of the week, the Fire Danger Index is expected to shift back up to high orange and red for the coming weekend.

“We appeal to everyone to be very careful when working with fire in these conditions,” said Mokgope.

Local Government MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu, whose portfolio includes disaster management, said provincial departments, Working on Fire and other organisations are aiding victims with food, medical care and shelters.

“As part of the rescue efforts, 25 municipal fire services were dispatched to the affected areas. However, due to bad weather, helicopters could not take off,” he said.

The Defence Force air wing is on standby. “We are still on alert as we are not out of danger yet.”

He said that a report will be sent to cabinet to decide if affected areas are disaster zones.

sandilez@witness.co.za

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