'You've got 30 minutes until that fire is on you' – Chilling escape for Hermanus centre's disabled patients

2019-01-16 06:16
The aftermath on the Camphill farm community estate. (Jenni Evans, News24)

The aftermath on the Camphill farm community estate. (Jenni Evans, News24)

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"Camphill, you've got 30 minutes until that fire is on you."

These were the chilling words that came over the rural safety watch group last Friday afternoon as a massive fire roared towards Camphill Farm Community outside Hermanus.

"That morning, while I was on the phone, I thought I smelt something burning," said Sam Hodson, executive manager of the property that houses 54 intellectually disabled adults and 31 staffers.

Not long after receiving the message, Dodson saw flames at the top of the hill in the picturesque Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

With the wind pushing hard, within 10 minutes, the flames were halfway down the hill heading for them and after another 10 minutes, they were at the farm's fence.

"It was like a fire tornado"

"All I can say is, 'thank God for fire drills'. We roll our eyes and go bleh whenever we have to do them, but thank God for fire drills."

With the fire siren howling, the residents and staff met at the main hall as planned. Fortunately, the bus drivers at the day school had not left for home yet.

With the clothes on their backs and a quick grab of the medications needed for some of the residents, the bus drivers sped people off the farm as the flame chased them.

Hodson had 11 people and a dog squeezed into his car and as he headed for the main road, he saw a wall of flames and realised it was too late to take that route.

Camphill, Hermanus

Aftermath: Camphill farm community estate. (Jenni Evans, News24)

Turning away from the flames, he headed down a gravel road towards a little-used entrance to a neighbour's farm.

Desperate to get everybody to safety, he decided to ram through the farm gates and get out of there as quickly as possible.

"It's not like the movies," he said. "The gates stayed closed.”

Their neighbour rushed down with bolt cutters to open the gate for them.

By then, the road back to Hermanus was blocked by fire and smoke, and the fire had also spread over the Onrus River that runs through Camphill's property.

"The fire was so hungry"

This meant they had to take a long way around to get to Sandbaai Hall in Hermanus where they took shelter.

"The fire was so hungry," said Mady Pretorius, a house mother standing in the main hall that smelt of Jik and soot amid the cleaning of the debris.

"The building is designed to withstand fire but the soot was this thick," she said, showing three centimetres with her fingers.

Her husband Giel, the facilities manager, stayed behind with five others.

They ran around the farm hosing the fire so that it would not get to the houses and moved the cattle away from immediate danger.

Their barn, which had R15 000 worth of animal feed stored inside, went up in flames. Half of the barn's roof was missing, burnt out or blown away in the strong wind.

"I was standing right here," said Giel, pointing to an ashen field strewn with large charred logs. 


Camphill's partially damaged barn. (Jenni Evans, News24)

"A log just flew out of the sky and landed right near me. It was like a fire tornado. The fire would be here and we would look to the other side and it had somehow jumped onto a tree that side. It was just one big rolling flame.

"I still can't believe that nobody got hurt. Just three chickens got their feet a little bit sore."

The Camphill Farm Community keeps its residents busy with meaningful work at the self-sustaining farm. They run a dairy, keep poultry, run a workshop and tend a large herb farm.

They lost their entire herb farm and also 27 out of the 30 beehives they had built up for their honey supplies.

Hodson said some of the residents were severely traumatised. Counselling is expected to start on Wednesday.

'What now?'

On Saturday morning after the fire, they had a "what now?" meeting, and work has started on cleaning up, assessing the damage and getting the utilities back up again.

"Pipes just melted," he said. "But, there was a miracle. None of the houses burnt down. If we had lost just one house, nine people would have had nowhere to stay."

He is still amazed that the houses and most of the buildings survived.

He said the generosity and kindness of Hermanus neighbours and residents has been incredible.

Residents in Hermanus brought food, bedding, and even toothbrushes for them at Sandbaai Hall.

"It was remarkable to see. They just dropped things off with no fanfare."


Firefighters putting out stubborn hotspots in Hermanus. (Jenni Evans, News24)

On Tuesday, roads in the area were filled with trucks from the Overstrand Municipality, the Cape Winelands District Municipality and Working on Fire officials. Crews were hosing down places where there were stubborn puffs of smoke.

At the Hermanus fire station, chief fire and disaster manager Lester Smith said most of the fire was out and just a few patches were still being taken care of.

He showed off piles of fruit, sandwiches, water, energy drinks, food, clothes and bottled water that residents had donated for the crew at their headquarters in Mount Pleasant.

Further donations can be dropped off at the fire station, and anybody who wishes to assist with cleaning up or counselling at Camphill can contact them at www.farm.camphill-hermanus.org.za.

Residents have been taken in by other residents, at a local lodge, or are staying with families while they hope for a return on Monday.

Hermanus fire station

Donations for fire victims at Hermanus fire station. (Jenni Evans, News24)

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