Somerset West taking stock after devastating fire

2011-04-17 22:59

Cape Town - Blackened walls of fire-destroyed luxury homes and charred stubble where fynbos used to be.

This bore testimony on Sunday to the fire which raged at the foot of and along the Helderberg Mountains at Somerset West over the weekend.

The veld fire, which started near the Helderberg Nature Reserve at about 08:00 on Saturday, was fanned by a 60km/h southeasterly wind. 

It was only brought under control on Sunday.

However, the fire has since moved towards Stellenbosch.

Eleven properties, most of them houses, were razed or damaged. The Straighway Head Country Hotel, a four-star establishment, was also destroyed.

Just two units were left standing.

The operator of the hotel, Gary Pinchen, told News24 all he could save was the office computer.

He also managed to close the gas valves and switch off the power before the flames engulfed the hotel at about 09:00.

No braai fire

Commenting on News24, a Somerset West resident who stays near the hotel, commended the emergency services.

"It was not a little Sunday braai that got out of control.

"... The Cape Town emergency services were working 100% at all times and through their actions saved 100's of houses and a big disaster.

"There isn't a single fault or inefficiency you can blame them for and Joe public was supporting them through the night, bringing food and refreshment," said the user.

"Thank You Cape Town Mega City and citizens of Somerset West/Cape Town, for without you I would have been homeless... anywhere else in SA with compliments of the otherwise national service delivery, aka lack thereof!!"

Huge pall of smoke

Thirty homes in the nature reserve were evacuated.

The Helderberg College also had to be evacuated when huge flames bore down on the campus buildings.

Firefighters managed to put out the flames in time.

While a huge cloud of smoke hung over Somerset West on Saturday, residents of Helderberg Estate prepared for the worst.

Residents of Hillcrest Street, which borders on the nature reserve, started dousing the flames with hose pipes as the flames crept nearer, reports Michelle van der Spuy.

A resident, Nicholas Davies, says all he could do is pray for rain.

Panicking residents could be seen loading pets, mattresses, prams and washing baskets into their vehicles.

Others stood watching the advancing flames with tears in their eyes and hands over their mouths.

Off-duty firemen called

Five helicopters and more than 200 firefighters from Cape Town, Working on Fire, the nature reserve and fire stations from surrounding areas fought the runaway fire.

Off-duty firemen were also called in to help.

Residents of Somerset West also contributed to the effort - making more than a 1 000 sandwiches for the "champions" and "heroes".
On Sunday, bread, water cans and bottled water could be seen at the Parel Vallei High School, which also doubled as command centre for the whole emergency operation.

Twenty fire tendons and other rescue and emergency services vehicles stood at the entrance to the school.

Exhausted men and women who battled the flames throughout the night, were having a well-deserved break and meal.

On Sunday, about 100 firefighters and two helicopters, as well as a plane, were monitoring the fire.

The head of operations, Danzel Ramedies, could not say how big the area was which the fire had destroyed.

He didn't want to say what had caused the fire. 

Residents earlier said the fire started as a long line of flames near the nature reserve, suggesting it was some sort of planned fire.

No one was injured in the fire.

- Were you there? Send us your eyewitness accounts and photos

Eyewitness account on the net: Storm chasing

  • Duke Nukem - 2011-04-18 00:09

    Erinvale had a "controlled" burn on thursday/friday without notifying or getting approvement from the fire dept.

      Bryn De Kocks - 2011-04-18 06:39

      I can confirm that this is what I had heard from a Helderberg Nature Reserve tenant. Though I think the burn was on Wednesday/Thursday - and then the strong winds ignited it again on Saturday.

      MaLemmer - 2011-04-18 08:01

      Oops, this could prove costly, if indeed these are facts!

      philsteel - 2011-04-18 09:18

      Get your facts right before you make any ridiculious accusations Clark????

      Janet R - 2011-04-18 12:08

      The controlled burn actually took place on Wednesday. The Dept of Nature Conservation carried out the burn NOT Erinvale. Only the DNC has the authority to set controlled burns. I do not live at Erinvale therefore my comment is without prejudice.

  • MJV - 2011-04-18 04:04

    Residents of Somerset West also contributed to the effort - making more than a 1 000 sandwiches for the "champions" and "heroes". This is DA style

      Willem G - 2011-04-18 08:02

      Oh please!! Take your politics elsewhere. This is not the time or place for that n nonsense.

      Torrie - 2011-04-18 09:58

      You must be black you damn racist...

  • Proudly SA - 2011-04-18 06:27

    The Western Cape Fire teams are absolutely amazing; whether it is fighting fires in Boland / Overberg, slopes of Table Mountain or horrific fires in informal settlements, they never cease giving their best and are so committed. We can be very appreciative and proud of them as they are really World Class. Ms Zille, please give them special praisen and honour them appropriately

  • coonpsycho - 2011-04-18 08:10

    i am so sorry for these families. we will help where ever we can.

  • Chezzles - 2011-04-18 08:49

    My mom-in-law and family were at the restaurant in the Nature Reserve when the fire started - they were having breakfast, sitting outside. She said they heard this crackling noise and smelt smoke, and when they went to the other side of the restaurant to check it out, the flames were above their heads and right there - in that wetland area right next to the building. Insane that it got so close to people and nobody did a thing to warn them. She also said two kids got lost and they could hear their father yelling for them and trying to find them - they were eventually found, but can you imagine the terror? My heart bleeds for everyone involved - but especially for those who lost their homes and businesses.

  • Craig Smithers - 2011-04-18 09:23

    Somerset West displayed its long standing community heritage this weekend, as we ALL pulled together to support the incredible men and woman who were dedicated to fighting the blazing flames, that threatened our town! We can be proud of not only our fire fighters and our municipality, who organised an incredible rescue effort, but also proud of what our community has grown to become. Thank you to all!

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