WATCH | DOCUMENTARY: The Cape of flames - it takes just one spark to ignite a catastrophe

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
  • A fire started in the vicinity of Rhodes Memorial on Sunday, 18 April.
  • It quickly spread over the mountain, scorching about 600 hectares of land.
  • Its biggest victim was UCT's library, where 75 000 books from the African Studies Collection went up in flames.

Fires in Cape Town are a relatively regular occurrence, but few are quite as devastating as the recent runaway fire, which started on Sunday, 18 April.

It culminated in the destruction of some priceless cultural heritage.

The Western Cape recorded about 17 000 fires during a previous season, James-Brent Styan, spokesperson for Environmental Affairs and Development Planning MEC Anton Bredell, told News24. 

PICS | Cape Town fires gut 3 city icons

He said 95% of these fires were doused within the first hour, which "speaks to what we've got in place".

But with tinder-dry vegetation blanketing the mountain range at the end of summer, it takes just one windblown spark to ignite a catastrophe.

Fanning the flames

Fire and Rescue Services were alerted to a fire on the lower mountain slopes, near Rhodes Memorial, at 08.45 on that Sunday morning.

As the flames spread, a gas canister exploded at the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant and Tea Garden. Within hours, it had reached the University of Cape Town (UCT).

READ | It was 'apocalyptic, like a scene from a movie' - UCT students traumatised after fire, evacuation

The library was engulfed in flames, destroying 80% of the African Studies Collection.

The nearby, historical Mostert's Mill was also gutted. 

Galeforce winds fanned the flames - and, when it finally died down on day three, it revealed the full devastation the fire had left in its wake.

While salvage operations at UCT are already underway, authorities are now trying to establish what caused the fires, and whether it could have been prevented. 

A host of volunteers from across the city, professional conservators and academics and students alike have joined forces at the University of Cape Town to save the valuable academic resources damaged in the Jagger Reading Room fire two weeks ago.
Inside the gutted Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town. Some 75 000 books from the African Studies Collection went up in flames.
Alien vegetation fueled the blaze and questions are now being asked about why it had not been cleared.
Sunday April 18, marked the start of a gruelling three-day battle against runaway mountain fires in the Mother City. The fires would destroy priceless cultural heritage buildings and raise questions about the management and preservation of Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain range.
About 250 firefighters were activated to fight the fires, which devoured everything in their path and aerial support was called in.
The fire quickly spread over the mountain, burning about 600 hectares of land.
Table Mountain at dusk.
Aerial support was called in to fight the runaway blaze from above.

'Let's get the answers'

Initial investigations indicate that a homeless person's unattended fire started the blaze.

The issue of the homeless seeking refuge on the mountain has come under the spotlight in the days since the fire. 

SANParks' management of the mountain has also been criticised, and many Capetonians want answers. 

READ | Fire damage to historic buildings in Cape Town 'devastating', says Heritage Trust

Alien vegetation fuelled the blaze, with questions now being asked about why it had not been cleared. 

News24's latest documentary looks back on the events as it unfolded and asks whether the preservation of the Stone Pines on the slopes of Table Mountain can be justified.

Independent forensic investigator, David Klatzow, believes there needs to be a thorough investigation:

Let's get the answers to the questions, and they are not unreasonable questions. Somebody at UCT and at the parks board needs to do some, please explaining.

"Why do you allow such a dangerous conglomeration of foliage to be on the border of a national resource. We're talking about a national treasure. The library is irreplaceable, and the tragedy is that it is gone. And everybody's saying, 'oh oops', that's not good enough, it should never have happened."

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
When and why would you have your or your partner's sperm count checked?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
That's an unnecessary procedure
17% - 483 votes
As soon as we decide to start a family
7% - 189 votes
Only if we're struggling to conceive
76% - 2119 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo