City of Cape Town warns against building on firebreaks


Cape Town - Building over firebreaks and the extreme density of illegal structures was behind some of the fires that left at least nine people dead around Cape Town since Saturday, safety and security spokesperson JP Smith said on Monday.

"They are their own worst enemies," said Smith, after the Boxing Day blaze in Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay left one person dead and at least 100 families displaced.

"There is illegal building, congestion, and building over the firebreaks, which makes it impossible for the City of Cape Town to stop the fires from spreading," he said.

Smith continued: "We might have to do evictions. The only way now is to go and demolish [the structures] and clear new firebreaks. Residents go and build where they shouldn't."

He said with the continuous flow of structures, it was impossible to stop a fire being fanned by the south-easter.

Emergency rebuilding kits

A fire broke out at the Mandela Park section on the slopes of the valley leading out of Hout Bay shortly before midnight on Boxing Day, destroying about 250 shacks and leaving around 1 000 people homeless.

Smith said the only way to prevent more fires was to not build over, or higher than, the firebreaks.

The city had already conducted over 800 awareness campaigns to drive this message home, he said.

Councillor Bendicta van Minnen from the City's mayoral committee for human settlements said after a visit to the area, that "too many times" fires that affected an entire community were caused by one, or a few negligent and irresponsible residents.

Some communities had a fire warning system, with one person standing as lookout. She said she encouraged this system, but that no city could monitor everybody's behaviour.

In the meantime, in the past eight weeks, people who lost their homes in previous fires had received one of 800 emergency rebuilding kits worth over R4.2m.

The kits include nails, poles, galvanised corrugated steel roof sheets, a door with a lockset or padlock, and a window.

The city was also carrying out re-blocking - where structures were reorganised to allow services to get through - and since December 1, fire retardant paint was being applied to houses.

"It needs to be recognised that, no matter the resources we put behind this or other initiatives we roll out, there is no miraculous silver bullet that will solve this problem unless behaviours change," Van Minnen said.

'Please be cautious with flammable materials'

Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille sent a message of condolences to the families of the dead.

"I am appealing to all resident to please be cautious with flammable materials and make sure they work with us to prevent these devastating fires."

In addition to the fire at Mandela Park where one man died, a 5-year-old boy and a 57-year-old woman died in a fire at Uitsig. In Delft, a man and a woman died in a fire, and in Mfuleni, a teenager and two adults were killed.

In another fire in Overcome Heights in Lavender Hill, a number of people were displaced and a man died from his burns.

Delmaine Cottee, ANC councillor for Ward 22 in Uitsig, said people had lost all of their belongings and had to re-register for social assistance cards and identity documents.

The causes of the fires were not yet known.

Meanwhile, investigations were still under way to establish how seven Metrorail coaches went up in flames at Cape Town station on Saturday.

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