Community unite as their thatched homes burn

2012-11-13 00:00

ST Francis of Assisi, the priest who had a passion for animals, would have been pleased with the way the residents of St Francis Bay had saved their pets from the wind-driven inferno that burned down a six-flat unit, 68 homes and an office block on Sunday night.

Only 20 of the homes were inhabited, the rest being empty holiday homes. The community is full of praise for the way everyone helped each other during the fire. Where owners were not at home, neighbours rescued pets. “Many people arrived at the disaster centre with dogs on leashes,” said Nerine Botha, a state vet who came to help.

On one street, the thatched home of Brian and Sandy Cunningham, who manages a B&B, alone survived the fire. “It was my four-ball friends who saved our home. I was in Port Elizabeth at a golf prizegiving when I got the news. When I got here, the house next door was still burning, with my mates all on our roof with hosepipes,” Cunningham said.

Janine van der Merwe, manager of the St. Francis golf club, said the community was very lucky not to have had any deaths after recent floods and now this fire. One fireman was injured when he fell through a roof and broke his arm.

Van der Merwe said the clubhouse served as an emergency centre where people delivered blankets, water, fresh fruit, ham and cheese.

Stanley Baartman, a senior Kouga municipal official, said this was not just a disaster for the 75 homeowners, but “an economic disaster for the entire district”.

Mlibo Qoboshiyane, Eastern Cape MEC for local government and traditional affairs, said during a a visit that the national government had declared the Kouga area, and specifically St Francis Bay, disaster areas after the recent floods.

“What I want to hear today is how we can prevent such disastrous fires in future. Building regulations concerning thatched roofs must be reconsidered,” Qoboshiyane said.

In 1992, a large part of St Francis Bay also burned after high winds drove a veld fire into the community and destroyed six homes. Last night’s gale force winds of up to 100 km/h made the flames “jump like circus acrobats from one thatch roof to another”, Baartman said.

The last flames were doused at 4 am yesterday morning. All the burned properties had been declared unsafe and will be demolished. Representatives of insurance companies were already in town yesterday. One said his company wants to pay in cash where possible to help the residents. An anonymous resident said the rebuilding would stimulate the district's economy again.

“To rebuild 68 homes is like building a new town,” he said.

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