[imagesource: Twitter / @equalizer_69]
As I write this, early on Tuesday morning, an almost constant stream of helicopters is waterbombing the area above Vredehoek and Devil’s Peak.
After heavy winds sidelined the choppers for most of yesterday, it’s music to the ears.
That image above was taken on Monday morning, and the situation has improved today, although Cape Town is not yet ‘out of the woods’.
You can follow News24’s live updates page here.
Capetonians have become resigned to these sorts of fires every few years, but as the ash begins to settle, fingers are already being pointed at SANParks and Table Mountain National Park management for failing to heed warning signs.
Speaking with TimesLIVE, North West University (NWU) School of Geo and Spatial Sciences senior lecturer Dr Sheldon Strydom outlined why this current fire grew so rapidly:
[Strydom] explained that fire required three “ingredients” to occur.
“There needs to be fuel available for combustion, a source of ignition and the atmospheric conditions, i.e. weather, need to be conducive to the burning of the fuel.”
Both Sunday and yesterday were very hot, dry days, and whilst investigations are still ongoing, it’s believed that “the origin of the fire is from a vacated vagrant fire.”
This is separate from the fires which were seen to be intentionally set on Sunday night, after which an arrest was made. You can read more on how that arrest came out here.
Essentially, weather conditions and a source of ignition are ticked off, but it’s the ‘fuel available for combustion’ which has seen some accusations that SANParks has erred.
An article on The Conversation, from October 2019, covered this dangerous build-up of ‘fuel load’:
Alien plantations have resulted in infestations of alien trees. Some citizens have been careless with inappropriate construction on the urban edge by building too high up on the mountains.
On top of this, various factors have resulted in a failure to maintain the desired fire regime, particularly of fires at 12-15 year intervals. As a result there has been a dangerous build-up of vegetation – fuel loads – in some places.
A three-step plan was outlined by the article’s authors – clear, manage and educate.
“Clear” refers to the removal of alien trees. Local residents can join alien clearing groups in their area. “Manage” refers to the need to support authorities on the Cape Peninsula – such as SANParks – to manage fynbos appropriately. This includes ensuring that, on average, 12-15 year prescribed burns happen.
In terms of education, the authors suggest residents are informed, so that they better understand “the relationship between fynbos and fires, so that future disasters can be avoided”.
We are still in the midst of this battle, and you may argue that it’s too soon to point fingers, but SANParks, which manages Table Mountain National Park, is being accused by some of falling short on the clearing and managing front, along with missing other red flags.
Table Mountain Watch, a collective group of concerned citizens, believes that SANParks must take full blame for the fire.
According to Andre Van Schalkwyk, who spoke on behalf of Table Mountain Watch, SANParks has failed to “manage the deadly fuel load of tinderbox vegetation in the Park,” and has also been “warned repeatedly about the threat posed by vagrants living in the park and lighting ‘cooking’ fires”:
“We knew something like this was going to happen sooner or later and SANParks has been repeatedly warned. But as ever, they elect to ignore the public, which is so typical of their bureaucratic arrogance.”
…Van Schalkwyk acknowledges that while fire can spread extremely rapidly, he says, “Here you have an iconic tourist destination and no one is doing anything to protect it. It beggars belief. These guys are supposed to know how fire patterns work, what could and should be expected, know where to deploy teams. They call themselves the professionals…”
Table Mountain Watch says it spoke with an eyewitness who watched the fire spreading above Rhodes Memorial from the restaurant, and assumed it was a training exercise:
The eyewitness, who has asked not to be named, said, “At no stage while we waited to be seated were there any SANParks individuals giving info on whether this fire was under control. We watched and became concerned – and suddenly the flames were 200m away and moving at speed.
And there were still no fire engines at the tea room. My friend Alan started shouting at people to get out of the area – there were moms with kids around – and there were still no SANParks personnel around. I blame the incompetence of the so-called authorities for their slow management skills. The gas cylinders exploded soon after we escaped from the tea room.”
The group goes on to recommend that the Park “be either privatised or managed on a Special Purpose Vehicle basis that breaks the destructive stranglehold SANParks have on the Park”.
Residents of Devil’s Peak, Vredehoek, and other areas bordering the mountain have grown accustomed to seeing small fires on the slopes and in the likes of Deer Park.
Whilst there is the occasional arsonist on the loose, for the most part, it’s vagrants making cooking fires, and that is never going to end well.
GroundUp with why the City of Cape Town needs to come up with a plan going forward:
Sooner or later, someone will fail to extinguish a cooking fire, or the wind will pick up a live ember. It’s a fact: the presence of people living and cooking on the mountain is a fire hazard.
People live on the mountain for a reason. And even those who would have no compunction about chasing them away will acknowledge that if people living on the mountain are chased away, they are very likely to return until a solution is found to whatever problem prompted them to move there in the first place…
This fire is an urgent reminder that there are compelling reasons – other than compassion – to offer better solutions to the people living on the slopes of our mountains. Not only for their sake, but for the sake of the whole city.
Better clearing practices, better management, and some sort of plan to deal with the homelessness problem that will not be solved by City officials chasing vagrants from the streets and up onto the mountain slope.
Let’s get this fire under control, and then do our best to ensure we reduce the chance of a similarly destructive blaze in the near future.
If you want to donate to those fighting the flames, and help the displaced UCT students, you can find details at the bottom of this post.
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