Counting the cost of Table Mountain firestorm

A double-storey Rondebosch home near UCT middle campus was gutted by the wild fire.

Capetonians are counting the cost of the Table Mountain inferno that swept from Rhodes Memorial to Devil’s Peak in three days, destroying homes, heritage landmarks and a hallowed UCT library.

The fire’s fury was tamed by Tuesday afternoon, according to Table Mountain National Park manager Philip Prins, but as the mountain continues to smoulder those who live in its shadow will look to the blackened waste the fire has left as they lament its great cost.

Chief among the losses are the Rhodes Memorial tea room, the Mostert’s Mill and UCT’s Jagger Library.

The fire also cost Michael and Angela Ashley, who both in their 80s, their Rondebosch home of 41 years. It was gutted on Sunday, less than an hour after they decided to evacuate.

Their son, Justin Ashley, says his parents called him shortly before they fled their home.

“They went to my sister, Sarah Ashley, with their two dogs, Percy and Candy. Then, within 30 minutes, a neighbour called to inform me that my parents’ house was burning.”

He arrived at his parents’ house later to find the roof of the double storey had collapsed.

“As the house is near middle campus UCT, some of the neighbours tried to physically alert the firefighters who responded quickly,” he says.

His parents have lost most of their possessions. “The photo albums were burnt, and my dad, who was a professor at UCT, lost most of his academic books in his study as well as documentation that he hanged on the wall.

“We are so grateful that they made the decision to evacuate as they are elderly. If they were home, it would have been tragic.”

Some 60 people had to evacuate the 101-year-old Mowbray Bowls Club, near UCT lower campus, in the middle of a bowls tournament on Sunday afternoon.

Club committee member Taz Bright says they left around 1pm after hearing that Mostert’s Mill had caught fire. “Within 90 minutes, our roof was on fire, the damage was extensive, though would have been worse if the firefighters had not responded so quickly,” she says.

There was damage to the ceiling, office, men’s toilet and equipment shed, and there was water damage to the honours board. Members will be playing at Western Province Cricket Club while the club is closed for repairs.

“We have also received support from the 30 other bowls clubs from Fish Hoek to Stellenbosch who are contacting us to find out how they can help us,” Ms Bright says.

The biggest evacuation was the 4000 UCT students who were forced to leave their digs on Sunday.

The campus was locked down and academic activities were suspended until tomorrow, Friday April 23.

UCT vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng says the university’s department of student affairs has since started managing the movement of students back to their residences from their emergency accommodation.

She thanked all those, including disaster-relief organisation Gift of the Givers, for coming to the aid of UCT and its students.

While the blaze that destroyed the Rhodes Memorial tea room on Sunday morning has been blamed on an unattended vagrant fire, according to Mr Prins, a 35-year-old man has been arrested for allegedly starting a second fire near Philip Kgosana Drive on Sunday night, according to Captain Ezra October of Cape Town Central police.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila says the suspect appeared in Cape Town Regional Court on Tuesday on a charge of arson. “His name is Frederick Mhangazo, he is Tanzanian and his case is being postponed for next Wednesday April 28 for bail application.”

The fire has burnt an estimated 600 hectares of land in the Table Mountain National Park, according to Mr Prins. Firefighters remain on the scene to continue with mop-up operations.

“Well done to the aerial and ground crews, the last few days have been challenging, but our brave men and women soldiered against all odds and became victorious in the end.”

A firefighter assesses the damage to the Mowbray Bowls Club.

The City’s Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Jermaine Carelse says the fire is contained, with only sporadic flare-ups in the Deer Park area that pose no threat.

“The downscaling of resources started Tuesday evening and only a few fire crews are currently monitoring the situation around UCT, Philip Kgosana Drive and Deer Park areas.”

SANParks CEO Fundisile Mketeni says an independent investigation is being carried out on the causes and the origin of the fire and information will be shared as soon as the report becomes available.