Maritzburg a city ablaze

2014-09-19 00:00

FIERCE gales threatened to turn Pietermaritzburg into a raging inferno yesterday as fires broke out all over the city and its surrounds.

Late yesterday residents standing at World’s View said the outlook was “scary” as there were fires burning on all sides of the city.

“It’s not as if there was one fire sweeping through, but fires in vastly different spots,” she said.

She said she’d heard another fire was sweeping towards the area from the N3.

Pietermaritzburg’s emergency services were stretched to the limit by the fires, which engulfed the city in smoke.

Areas including Clarendon were threatened as a blaze fanned by strong winds raced through a plantation in the World’s View area, sparking veld fires in the vicinity.

An informal settlement in Woodstock Road, Mountain Rise, was razed to the ground, leaving about 70 families homeless.

The landfill site in Hayfields was also alight, spewing black fumes into the sky.

At Ashburton, a home in Dely Crescent was saved from a fast-moving bush fire in the nick of time, resident Janice Whitelaw told The Witness.

Whitelaw returned home in the evening to a blackened landscape. “Apparently the fire was very, very hot and very fast. It raced through the bush in minutes because it’s dry.”

She said the fire brigade just got to a neighbouring house in time to put out the blaze.

When The Witness visited Gresty Close in the heart of Clarendon yesterday afternoon, police and Correctional Services officials were helping residents cope with fires that encroached on their gardens and threatened homes.

They used garden hoses to fight the flames as the fire department was busy fighting fires elsewhere.

A domestic worker, Nomusa Gasa, fled her employer’s house in fear as huge flames licked the perimeter around the house. She told The Witness she was inside when she noticed the forest was on fire. She fled in panic, leaving behind the family’s pets.

When police went in to fetch the dog, it refused to go with them. However, the homeowner’s daughter, Lana Kruger, said she had later fetched the dog, but their cat was missing. The fire was contained before it engulfed the house, burning only the thatched roof of a lapa and damaging the balcony.

Another resident in the area said the flames that leapt through the tinder dry trees above the houses in the area sounded like exploding fireworks.

She and her children huddled in their driveway as they regarded it as the safest place to be until the fire died down.

By late afternoon the area was still hazy with smoke and embers were still glowing, but the major threat appeared to be over. “It was scary. We are afraid that the wind will come up and reignite the fire,” she added.

At John Peattie House — a children’s home in Villiers Drive — children were evacuated, and fires in the grounds were being damped down with buckets of water and hosepipes by helpers.

Fires also threatened Clarendon House old age home, the occupants of which were evacuated and taken to safety at The Wykeham Collegiate.

The Witness was told that boarders were moved from the boarding establishment at Wykeham to a safer area in the school due to their proximity to the fires.

A resident of the Mountain Rise informal settlement, Thandeka Qayiso, said it was believed that the fire started when an electrical pole was blown over by strong wind. She and the other occupants of her home, including a man in a wheelchair, got out safely, but she only salvaged her identity document.

Jemina Khokhotsho said she was asleep when she heard someone knocking loudly on her door and was told about the fire. She immediately went out. All their belongings were destroyed.

By the evening, Mountain Rise residents were out helping to feed and shelter the Woodstock Road families who had lost their homes. Humanitarian organisations Al-Imdaad and the Being Human Foundation were also helping out, as well as Msunduzi councillors and ward committee members.

While fire fighters were busy on this front yesterday, reports were coming in of fires at Bishopstowe, Clarendon and at Camps Drift.

By early evening Msunduzi fire chief Billy Paton still had all five crews out.

He believed they would be working through the night as there was no sign of the fires letting up, and homes continued to be threatened as new fires broke out even though the wind had died down.

Paton thanked residents of the city for helping the fire fighting teams. He said he was touched to see people coming out with hosepipes and buckets, helping to fight the fires. Civil servants from other government departments, like Correctional Services, had also rallied around. “With just five crews we could not be everywhere, but the residents of Pietermaritzburg were wonderful in the way they pitched in,” he said.

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