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Capetonians escape roaring Lion’s Head fire

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When local artist Beezy Bailey evacuated his Cape Town house on Sunday night, it brought back memories of his holiday home in Plettenberg Bay, which burned down in runaway fires a year and a half ago.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jan 31, 2019

“Thankfully, my Cape Town house is fine, but if it had caught fire, I would have lost 30 years of work,” says Bailey, who is working on a book about his decades-long art career. “It was thanks to the fact that the wind direction changed and the heroic firefighters that no property was damaged this time round,” he says. “The firefighters were like an army going into battle.”

Capetonians on both sides of Lion’s Head watched as the city’s beloved mountain was engulfed in flames on Sunday evening as high winds fanned the fires that crept within 50 metres of their homes.

Though the city was already covered in smoke from fires in outlying areas, it brought home the reality of living so close to mountains and the forces of nature. In spite of there being no official call to evacuate, many chose to do so, including Jewish families living in Fresnaye.

Jessica Jedeikin’s apartment borders the mountain. As soon as she saw the fire, she rushed over to remove her cat. “At about 18:00 there was a lot of smoke, and we were concerned that it was affecting her. As we were driving away, we saw the fire was coming nearer. By 20:00, there were calls from the body corporate and the block to evacuate. There was pandemonium as everyone was running around. The fire had come over the mountain, and was creeping closer and closer.

“By 20:30 it was about 200 metres away from the entrance to the block. Everyone started panicking, packing, and trying to evacuate. There was a lot of smoke at this stage. We could barely see anything, and everyone was covered in black soot. I had two bakkies in the parking area, and I had a lot of family and friends to help get everything out of my apartment that I could [move],” she recalls.

“At about 20:35, there was a call saying that we had to be out of the building in 30 seconds. We made it, but the parking lot was gridlocked. Then we managed to get out of there.”

Jedeikin says that the police arrived only at 22:00, and knocked on doors to make sure that everyone had evacuated. “Just before 23:00, a miracle [occurred]. The wind switched, and the flames started heading away. They had been a few hundred meters from people’s doors. Thank G-d everything was okay and safe, but it was very scary.”

Emma Levin and her family were out swimming when they smelled smoke. “Within about 30 minutes, we felt the fire getting stronger, and ash started to rain down on us.” Anxious to get home, she knew she might have to evacuate. “I grew up in Camps Bay, and we evacuated our home more times than I can remember. I know how quickly these fires can spread,” she says.

Her toddler was very aware of what was going on, especially as he has been fascinated by the nearby Arthur’s Road shul fire a few weeks earlier. “We had to convince my husband’s parents to leave the home they were house-sitting on Top Road. The fire eventually came right up to their house.”

By 20:00, the Levins  decided to evacuate. “We were not evacuated by officials, but in case it did come down to that, we did not want to be doing it in the early hours of the morning, in the pitch dark, in a total panic, with two distressed kids, forgetting to take important things. It’s very hard to know what to take. As organised as I thought I was, not everything was easy to find. The emotional part of your brain is telling you to take precious, irreplaceable things, but the practical part of your brain is telling you to take things like clothes, toothbrushes, and a bottle of milk for the baby.”

The family piled into two cars, and went to a hotel that was fortunately able to accommodate them at the last minute. “The owners are Jewish, and were so kind and understanding. They loaned us a camp cot, and most importantly, didn’t mind our cat! The kids were unsettled, and fell asleep late. We stayed up watching the fire until the early hours of the morning.

“The next day, we went home to an ash-filled house and pool, and found that the fire had come within 50 metres of the top of our road,” says Levin. “It would have been too stressful and smoky to have stayed. Leaving was the less stressful option for our kids. While we are saddened by the extent of the fire, we are extremely grateful that our family and home are safe.”

JP Smith, the Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security, says that the fire might have been caused by people cooking on the mountain after cooking utensils were found at the place where it is thought to have ignited.

At its peak, more than 70 firefighters – both professionals and volunteers – and about 20 firefighting vehicles were on the scene battling the fire. There was no damage to property, but hiking trails and vegetation have been largely destroyed. The Lion’s Head route, which was due to re-open on 15 February following routine maintenance, has now been closed indefinitely.

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