Burning Cape Mountains: Three Days and Nights of Fire

2015-03-04 11:17

On Monday, with ferocious wind fanning the flames, helicopters were grounded, and firefighters stood uneasily on guard, waiting. The fire spread across the range, headed for Ou Kaapse Weg and Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay.

And still the fire burns…

Reports say it flared first just after two am on Sunday 1 March, above Boyes Drive.

Speculation is rife:

A gang of pyromaniacs set the fires, using bits of broken glass.

It started in a cave, set by homeless wanderers, and got out of control.

Could be caused by those religious nuts who go up onto the Muizenberg mountain to pray all night, and they rip out the fynbos to make fires, burning protea stands that are generations old, and National Parks does nothing.

This evening, Tuesday, reflected light from the fire casts a surreal orange glow over Muizenberg village. I am not overly concerned, but when I see the sky, red as blood, at the back of the house, adrenaline spikes at my fingertips.

Helicopters have all day, against a weird light filtering through smoke from a crimson sun, beat back and forth, back and forth from vlei to mountain, carrying water to douse the fires. The efforts, saving Muizenberg mountain, seemed to have been successful, but now I see flames leap and rise where they were earlier (I thought) extinguished.

I walk up the road, perhaps a hundred metres from my house, to Boyes Drive which serves as a fire break, to see how close it is, the fire. The road is closed to traffic; here fire trucks and disaster management vehicles wait. Cameras and cell phones are out, as the power of fire captures the attention, the imagination, and people stare up in awe and record the moment. How small we are in the face of raw nature.

My fingertips zap again with fear as I see the height and rage of the flames. Firefighters can’t chase the fire back. They wait for it to descend. Then the priority will be to save homes and people.

The sound of fire is ironically similar to the sound of rain beating on a tin roof; tonight the sound is amplified as the fire flares, feeding on vegetation, trees crackle, and explode, the sound of thunder, and sparks rain; the mountain is a mess of burning, flames yes, but also a carpet of glowing, gleaming, enkindled wood and vynbos is left in the wake of the flames. For a split second the mountain, in glittering splendor, could be mistaken for the view of lights across the city at night as seen from De Waal Drive.

Back home, I water my walls, and roof, I see ash raining in the eerie light. The night is hot, the water will evaporate too soon. I think too that this is costing megabucks, on account of one person's selfish thoughtless action. If the fire started through human effort, that person knows who he is. There will be landslides this winter and more threats to life and property. Will Chapman's Peak re-open and under what conditions?

A bird, a flapping black shape, flies into the garden; disorientated, it smacks into the glass of a shut window and falls back, regaining flight, finally settling on a bush. I imagine the smouldering husks of countless creatures destroyed; tortoises, creeping down the mountain, too slow to escape; snakes, and small creatures; lizards, spiders, insects will die; and badly burnt will be genets, buck (recently reintroduced), lynx, porcupine, dassies and mongoose; and birds will have problems with food and water.

My friend Heather remembers the devastating fires of 2000. She tells me of her experience dealing with a porcupine whose feet had been burnt down to the bone as it stood at the burrow to protect its babies: I will never ever forget. The vet came and put her down and we looked after the babies when they put in an appearance two days later.

The SMS’s come in: Are you okay? Tell me, writes Joy, so I can stop worrying.

If you need to evacuate, offers Sherran, come to us. We’ll put you up. What can we do for you?

Lots of scary photos are posted on facebook. Of the force of the fire.

Melissa writes: F@#$%ck people, the fire is coming straight towards us now. Have packed up everything I could carry into the Freelander, minus me and Max...can't quite believe that I might be saying adios to these artefacts of my life...the old Oregon table I wrote my novel on… my biltong kist from Hannes' family's farm in Philippolis, my piano, all these lovely little plants that I planted a month ago to try to make this place beautiful...

I wonder what it is I would save? My children. Documents. Birth certificates. Passports. My laptop. My pets. What else? This is an exercise in existential meaning, what worldly goods have such significance that they are worth carting off, what would one carry out in the face of imminent destruction of one’s home?

I imagine a drive, in the next few days, along bleak curves of Ou Kaapse Weg towards Silvermine, or traveling on the Noordhoek Road towards Hout Bay, a drive along the immense tracts of devastated vegetation. I will see blackened barbed wire, melted sign posts, scorched rock and stone, piles of ash; charred branches, on grey slopes, will scratch at a cloudless sky.

I tell the kids, Go to bed. My eyes smart, my face is greasy from fine soot. I shower, the coolness of water on my skin a reminder of the preciousness of this resource taken for granted.

I am grateful for the firefighters, for the helicopters, for the efforts of others to save homes and dreams and vegetation and wildlife. There is nothing I can do. Apart from write this piece, and pray for rain, and relief. For the mountain, but also for my mind on fire, full of memory, as I keep counting on my fingers, as I lie in bed, the smell of the all-pervading smoke in the house, the things worth saving. Life. The creatures. Nature. Photos, and letters, card made by children, that cannot be replaced.

As I reread this, today, Wednesday, I skrik as thunder sounds; but as for the rain forecast, there has been very little. Cash donations can be made to the Volunteer Wildfire Services. I'm on twitter @JoanneHichens News24 Voices Terms & Conditions.

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