Cape Town fire ‘like the early ten plagues before Pesach’
The fires that broke out on Table Mountain and Lion’s Head at the weekend led to scenes of destruction and fear as the flames approached homes and even a shul and Jewish school at record speed. Cars and one fire engine were destroyed, and a number of homes were burnt.
“Flames were in our garden and were making their way around the full perimeter of the property creating a giant ring,” says Horler, whose family home on the Atlantic Seaboard was saved by firefighters.
“Within what felt like less than a minute, the smoke became so thick that everything went dark. Sparks began to rain down and burned holes in my t-shirt. At this point, we knew it was over, and that we had to leave,” he says.
“In 1995, there was a similar fire, and the following year, a devastating mudslide due to loosened earth that caused extensive damage to my parents’ house. So, ever since then, my family has been extremely vigilant – and quite traumatised – about fires,” says Horler.
“This fire had already been raging on Table Mountain for several hours when I received a call from my sister. She had just received a panicked phone call from our mom to collect their animals and take them to safety. The fire had crossed the road, and was now heading down Lion’s Head towards their house. The wind was howling.
“I arrived at the house about 30 minutes later to see smoke billowing from the tree line just beyond their property. The house sits just below a ridge, inside a ravine, right up against the mountain. We knew, if things got bad, we would have very little time to react due to the house’s position. We started to load cars while they used hosepipes to wet the garden, walls, and roof of the house.
“Within 30 minutes of the news that the fire was far away, out of nowhere, we saw the first flame appear on the top of the ridge and ash started to blanket everything. We all donned wet clothes as the smoke and ash was starting to burn our chests and eyes. At the same time, fire trucks were hurtling past our house to tend to the flames higher up the mountain, oblivious to how close it was to our property. Eventually, out of sheer desperation, I ran into the middle of the road and forcibly stopped a fire truck and begged them for assistance.
“By this time, the flames were already in our garden. At this point, an official evacuation order was made. Two hours later, on returning to the house, we could see that the entire property was surrounded by a glowing halo of small fires, but they were under control and we got word that the house had been saved but there was extensive damage all around it. We then heard that some houses above us had been lost.
“While all of this was happening, the president was addressing the nation about plans for a national lockdown to combat Covid-19. Things felt truly apocalyptic. I felt a great sense of helplessness.
“The next morning, at first light, helicopters arrived to douse the remaining smouldering areas, and the full scope of the disaster revealed itself. We will now have to take proactive steps to protect the property with sandbags and retaining walls to prevent another mudslide from occurring when the winter rains arrive.
“There are literally no words to express the gratitude we have for the fearless firefighting heroes.”
Meanwhile, many community members co-ordinated efforts on the ground. Jacqui Biess assisted with traffic control, evacuating residents, calling in volunteers, and keeping stakeholders updated.
“I was watching a live stream of the fire, and it was so scary. It was also so surreal that in this time of Covid-19, it felt like we were experiencing the ten plagues early for Pesach,” she says.
Artist Beezy Bailey has had numerous encounters with fires, including losing his holiday home to the catastrophic Garden Route fires in 2017. Once again, fire encroached on his home on the slopes of Table Mountain. “The drill to evacuate was in place. I hosed down my studio, the house, and the trees around it, and we had to wear masks and goggles because of the smoke. The firemen were absolutely outstanding, doing a heroic job in mad winds to contain the fire for 24 hours.”
Leonard Katz lives one road away from the mountain in the City Bowl, and two houses caught fire on the road above his. “Every year, we have a mountain fire, but this was the first time I thought our home was going to go. The police told us to evacuate. The wind was pounding, and the smoke was thick.” His family spent the night in a nearby hotel, and their home was saved. “Our house would definitely have caught alight without the firefighters.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain, the fire was threatening Camps Bay Shul and the Phyllis Jowell School, which are nestled in a forest called The Glen. Community Security Organisation (CSO) responders rushed to the scene, and together with community leaders, decided to evacuate the Torah scrolls. “The CSO also assisted in treating firefighters who needed eye drops and the like,” says the organisation’s Jarred Marcus. The fire didn’t reach the premises, and the Torah scrolls have been returned.
David Gimpel’s family’s properties were threatened by the fires. “People are so quick to say how we’re living in a broken city, broken country, broken system. Well, there are two clear factors that averted massive damage to property: first, local authorities ensure that there are firebreaks in place that are regularly cleared. Second, the fire department and its heroes were tireless, dedicated, and thoroughly professional. They arrived in our area after battling the fire for hours on the other side of the mountain.
“They didn’t think twice before venturing into steep, scrubby bush that is difficult for an experienced hiker to tackle on a regular Sunday hike. But they were doing it in cumbersome, hot protective gear and carrying heavy hoses. And they were walking into a solid wall of scorching flames, in the dark, with crazy gusting winds that kept changing directions and fire torrents of embers that would land on trees a hundred meters away and set them alight,” says Gimpel.
“Conditions like these are taxing to the max, but the fire teams just kept at it, and didn’t leave until 09:00 this morning once they were sure everything was under control. Kol hakavod (well done) to them!”