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Cape Town fires: no major damage

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TALI FEINBERG

Herzlia Highlands Primary, Herzlia Middle School and Herzlia High School, were directly below the fire, and there was a real threat that the schools would catch alight. Says United Herzlia School Committee Chairman Mark Todes: “A group of us had remained in the boardroom to monitor the situation. The gusting gale-force winds sent massive flames up into the sky on the mountain just behind Highlands Primary School. Our view of this was frankly terrifying.”

At around 01:00, as the flames got closer, it became clear that there was a very real risk of the fire engulfing the Primary School campus; which would in turn then raise the risk to the Middle and High School campuses.

“Our thoughts then turned to what, if anything, we should rescue out of the school buildings in case they did catch fire. We all thought quite spontaneously that the only really important items were the Sifrei Torah on each campus. We went back to the Batei Midrash in all three schools and removed a total of 11 Sifrei Torah. These were all loaded into my car.”

The group decided that it would be prudent for Todes to take the Sifrei Torah to his home. “It was an amazingly spiritually uplifting experience driving along a deserted De Waal Drive with so many Torah scrolls in my car. I returned the scrolls to the school after the big clean-up had been completed.”

The campuses were closed on the Tuesday, while school leadership communicated with parents and learners, asking them to return on the Wednesday in old clothes to help clean up. “Layers of ash and soot coated classrooms, desks, equipment, floors; wherever you looked there was just a mess,” describes Herzlia Director Geoff Cohen.

Herzlia High head learner Greg Furman sent out a Facebook message, encouraging learners to fully take part in the clean-up operation: “This is our school and we will not let a natural disaster break our spirit,” he wrote.

Other institutions were affected. CSO Director Jacques Weber shares his perspective: “The conditions on this particular night were exacerbated by the extreme winds, resulting in smoke and ash travelling extreme distances.

“There was no direct fire risk to [Jewish old-aged home] Highlands House; nonetheless smoke issues were combated by securing all windows and doors to prevent smoke entering the building. At the same time the CSO alerted all responders including our medical division, so that in case there is a need to evacuate we would be able to mobilise in five to 10 minutes.”

Belinda Slavin of the Oranjia Jewish Child and Youth Centre says the nine children living there were evacuated, as the home was extremely close to the fire. “It all happened so fast – from a bit of smoke to a full-blown fire.”

Community members also came out to assist neighbours, direct traffic and protect buildings; many were evacuated from their homes. This was mostly due to smoke inhalation, but some homes were at risk of catching alight.

Six-months pregnant Samantha Reznik-Laing, who is a teacher at Herzlia Alon Ashel, who also has a young son, was forced to flee as she watched her home begin to burn. She loaded her child, belongings and pets into her car and drove to safety, while her husband stayed behind to try and save their family home. Sadly it was damaged in the fire, but not completely destroyed.

“We are devastated. I am trying to have a positive frame of mind to get me by. It is a complete invasion of personal belongings that have been collected over many years. In time we know it’ll all work out the way it’s meant to be and we are forever grateful that we are safe.”

Reznik-Laing has praise for the fire fighters who “worked flat-out to keep us as safe as possible and to protect as much of our home as they could; Cheryl Lazarus (principal of Alon Ashel), my colleagues and the parents of Alon Ashel pupils have been incredible and keep asking how they could help.

“We know we have amazing support to get us by, but I worry for the people who have no resources when finding themselves in these situations.”

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