A massive fire in the Mid-Illovo/Eston area from early on Sunday morning until after midnight has left a trail of devastation, destroying more than 2 000 hectares of sugarcane plantations on at least 15 farms and completely razing the Gwahumbe Spa and Game Lodge.
In what has been described as the “worst ever” fire to affect the area, some farmers managed to stop the flames from destroying their homes literally at their front doors, while others had the nets covering their swimming pools melt from the heat.
Frantic farmers, community members and security personnel banded together in a bid to extinguish the fire.
Most believe the fire was caused by a “freak act of nature” given Sunday’s high temperatures, heavy winds and dry conditions. Others, however, believe it could be arson.
Ant Foster, the chair of the Mill Group Board of Eston, said sugarcane farmers in the area suffered the biggest losses, with over 100 000 tons of millable sugarcane burnt.
Runaway fire destroys property worth millions
Kim Kyser, chairperson of the Eston/Mid-Illovo Farm Watch, said they were not ruling out the possibility that the fire was an act of arson.
“There were several spots in different areas that started burning. It could be an act of nature but we are not ruling out the possibility of arson.
“We are just grateful that no one was killed. There are some guys who were burnt in the fire and in a stable condition in hospital.
“I’ve been involved in lots of firefighting and this is by far the worst I have ever seen.
“Some people in their 60s and 70s say this is definitely the worst in the past 20 or 30 years,” said Kyser.
Star Ngcobo from Magma Security said they became aware of the fire mid-morning on Sunday and alerted security personnel in the area to check on any suspicious activity.
The family-owned luxury Gwahumbe Game Lodge and Spa was completely gutted by the fire.
Shanon MacKenzie, owner of the upscale resort, confirmed that staff and members of the local community had fought late into the night to save the lodge and chalets. However, it was ultimately razed to the ground, causing damage running into millions of rands.
“Most importantly, all of our staff are safe and accounted for and our staff accommodation was saved. We have sent most of our traumatised staff home,” she said.
MacKenzie said the family and conservationists had been working since before dawn on Monday morning to account for wildlife on the reserve. By midday, it appeared that animal casualties had been minimal and most animals had been located.
As most of the grazing on the reserve had been destroyed by the fire, she appealed to local farmers to assist with donations of hay bales for the wildlife.
MacKenzie said the owners of the nearby Tala Game Reserve had sent staff to help check on the wildlife. “Numerous volunteers have been at the resort ... People have been delivering food for the animals. The support has been overwhelming,” said MacKenzie.
The fire started 16 km away began on Sunday morning and, fanned by strong winds, it spread rapidly across the region.
Gwahumbe was founded 26 years ago by MacKenzie’s mother and father, who both designed and built the reserve themselves on rehabilitated farm land. Over the years, it has achieved a great deal from a conservation point of view and has hosted BBC television’s Top Gear and Gordon Ramsay’s National Geographic travel food show, UnCharted.