Choking smoke shrouds city

2016-08-10 14:02
Members of the Pietermaritzburg Fire Department monitor a fire at the dump site on Tuesday.

Members of the Pietermaritzburg Fire Department monitor a fire at the dump site on Tuesday. (Ian Carbutt)

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Pietermaritzburg residents choked on clouds of billowing smoke and an eye-watering stench on Tuesday after the city’s dump had caught fire the previous night.

Residents living downwind from the dump said the fire added to the city’s pollution woes and created a health hazard. Smoke that had initially engulfed the immediate area surrounding the New England Road landfill site spread over the city as the wind’s direction kept changing.

Early on Tuesday, flames could be observed from vantage points several kilometres away.

The Pietermaritzburg fire department confirmed that the fire started on Monday night, and fire fighters said they expect it may continue to burn until the end of the week.

Fire fighters battled throughout the day to extinguish the blaze, which threatened to raze the entire landfill site.

Their efforts were being hampered by the prevailing drought conditions in the city.

Lincoln Meade resident Vasha Thakur said she could see the clouds of smoke as she travelled to her workplace at Duzi Turf, less than two kilometres from the landfill site.

“When I got to work, the smell was horrific. It smelt like acid, the kind of smell that makes your eyes water,” she said.

Thakur said the wind direction had changed by 8 am, however, and the smoke and smell drifted into the atmosphere.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Pietermaritzburg skyline was still blurred by a haze of smoke. The fire department said it had sent out three crews to fight the blaze.

Fire trucks, water tankers and graders were sent to the site.

Station officer Anthony Piettersen said the constant change in the wind direction made their task difficult. However, the current water shortages were uppermost in their minds.

“Our main concern is water pressure. We know that the province is battling with a drought, but we need water to put out this fire.

“We have been here from last night [Monday night] and we are expecting the fire to continue for the whole week because the municipal dumps are so deep.

“At the moment we are trying to contain the fire so that it does not spread to other pockets of the landfill site,” he said.

Piettersen said it was usual to get “spontaneous” fires at the dump site, because of the chemicals that are dumped there.

Musa Chamane, a campaigner at environmental justice group groundWork, said he believed residents as far as five kilometres away from the site would feel the impact of the smoke.

Chamane said it was objects that were being illegally dumped at the landfill site that caused major problems.

“We hope the municipality will put out the fire urgently.

“This poses health risks to the people who stay near the dump site,” he said.

Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson Nqobile Madonda said the municipality was worried about the impact the fire could have on the environment and the residents.

“We will investigate the cause, and then be able to know how these can be avoided in future,” she said.

Leonie Binneman posted on The Witness’s Facebook page that she could not stand the smell accompanying the smoke. “This is terrible, especially if you think about all the factories that are around the area.

“This is pollution of note and very bad for anyone working around the area,” she said.

While the fire fighters continued with their efforts to extinguish the fire, waste pickers still scratched through the dump yesterday as if nothing had happened. One of the waste pickers, who asked not to be named, said they had no choice but to continue looking for whatever they could sell.

“As much as this is a health risk for us, we have to make ends meet at the end of the day. It will not help any of us to stay at home and wait for the fire to be put out first.

“This is our only source of income, and it’s not like working conditions are pleasant here when there is no fire,” said the waste picker.

Paramedics have warned that people with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma and sinusitis are likely to be most affected by the billowing smoke in the city.

Provincial Emergency Medical Services spokesperson Robert Mckenzie said babies and the elderly should be extra careful.

He warned that those with medical conditions should ensure all their medication was fully stocked and taken as prescribed.

“If their symptoms do get worse, they should contact their doctor. Smoke inhalation could worsen their conditions,” Mckenzie said.

He suggested that those who were struggling to breathe should call the emergency services.

ER24 spokesperson Andrew Rogers suggested that it would be advisable for people to evacuate their homes if they noticed a severe smoke build-up nearby.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  smoke

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