“I just took my laptop and two textbooks. I left there in a hurry with only the clothes on my back.”
This is all Abdul-Mujeeb Karriem, a third-year B-com chartered accountant student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) took with him on Sunday 18 April when a massive wildfire broke out in the mountain slopes at Rhodes Memorial and quickly spread to the university.
Karriem says he is living with a family member in the area. “I saw the fire at around 10:00 and thought nothing of it. Because it’s not the first time that there is a fire on the mountain. But hardly an hour later when I looked through the window at my residence, I just saw smoke.”
That is the moment when they were told to evacuate. “It happened so quickly; the whole lower campus was covered in smoke, we were looking for our friends, no one knew where to go. Luckily for me, I had family this side, but for a long-time students were standing on the Main Road with nowhere to go.”
He explains that the situation was terrifying because it happened so quickly. By the end of Sunday, buildings affected included a section of the restaurant at Rhodes Memorial, the historic Mostert’s Mill in Mowbray and two thatched roof dwellings near Woolsack Drive.
In an internal communication leaked to Radio 786, UCT’s executive director of libraries Ujala Satgoor said the reading room in one of its libraries on the upper campus had been completely gutted. Satgoor said while some valuable collections had been lost, the fire detection system in place triggered the fire shutters, preventing the spread of the fire to other parts of the library.
Ariel firefighting efforts were stopped yesterday morning (April 19), in the Vredehoek area because of the South Easter wind which hampered aerial firefighting.
SANParks said on Monday that over 400 hectares of land in the park had been damaged “so far”.
Jermaine Carelse, spokesperson for the City’s fire and rescue service, says: “More than 250 firefighters from the City, Table Mountain National Park, Working on Fire and the Volunteer Wildfire Services remain on the ground, fighting the fire on various fronts.”
Carelse says four firefighters has been injured.
Baigum Abrahams, a firefighter based in Mitchell’s Plain who was on the scene, says the wind is making their task even more difficult. “We are tired, and it is extremely hot up there and a smoke-filled environment. You can’t breathe, you are surrounded by smoke, the winds are crazy up there. But we tried our best to prevent it from heading to the properties.”
Abrahams thanked the public for all the refreshments. He said the refreshments sustained them and gave them energy amidst the difficulties.
Residents in Disa Park in Vredehoek were also evacuated as a precautionary measure.
Provincial police spokesperson Col Andrè Traut confirmed that a 35-year-old man was arrested on Sunday for suspected arson. “It is alleged that a member of the local neighbourhood watch witnessed three suspects making a fire on the mountain and alerted authorities. Two of the suspects managed to evade arrest. The circumstances surrounding the case are being investigated and an appearance in court is yet to be scheduled.”
By yesterday evening, firefighters were still on scene, monitoring the situation.