Wild fire destroys historic landmarks

UCT’s library was among the historic buildings damaged by the fire.

By Monday afternoon the devastating mountain fire that caused mass destruction at the University of Cape Town and forced the evacuation of students had finally been contained.

However, warned Fire and Rescue Services Incident Commander Arlene Wehr, the fire was not yet out and fire-fighters remained on standby.

The fire, which started above Philip Kgosana Drive on Sunday morning, tore through Rhodes Memorial and razed the tea room there before spreading towards UCT.

As the fire raged on Sunday, huge tracts of land burned – and the historic Mostert’s Mill and Jagger Library at UCT were all but destroyed.

“With temperatures of 36 degrees noted and an extremely low relative humidity of under 10% the fire spread rapidly in the direction of Rhodes Memorial,” said Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) manager, Philip Prins.

By this morning, fuelled by a gusty south-easter, the fire spread to Vredehoek where residents were evacuated, said the City’s Disaster Risk Management spokesperson, Charlotte Powell, and later in the day it also spread to parts of Walmer Estate and District Six where schools were evacuated.

Principal of Holy Cross Primary Nomthandazo Zweni said they were told to evacuate around 10am. “We evacuated the children out to Chapel Street Primary, we are all traumatised and worried,” she told the Tatler.

Ursula Windsor who teaches art classes at the Children’s Art Centre at Zonnebloem Nest said they had had to evacuate along with the Zonnebloem Boys’ and Zonnebloem Girls’ Schools.

As the dust started to settle, grim images and video footage of the aftermath of the fire showed the major destruction to the Reading Room of the UCT library.

“At this stage the reading room is entirely gutted and thankfully the fire detection system nearby prevented the spread of the fire to other parts of the library,” said executive director of the UCT Library, Ujala Satgoor.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng added that all academic activities were suspended today and tomorrow, Tuesday April 20.

“The safety of students and staff is paramount. For safety reasons, campus will be locked down and no one, other than emergency services, will be allowed access,” she said.

Professor Phakeng said food and emergency accommodation had been arranged for 4 000 students who were evacuated.

“The necessary arrangements have also been made to accommodate our Muslim students, food will be prepared at Old Mutual’s offices in Pinelands, and from there it will be distributed to the locations where we are accommodating our students.”

Humanitarian organisation, Gift of the Givers, came to the aid of the UCT students, offering to provide three meals a day for the next seven days.

Meanwhile, Capetonians also opened their hearts to the fire-fighters, with scores of donations being dropped off at the Newlands Firebase and Roeland Street fire station in the city centre.

TMNP spokesperson, Babalwa Dlangamandla said people had dropped off food, water, energy drinks and an assortment of other necessities.

Among those on the frontlines were City of Cape Town fire-fighters, TMNP, Working on Fire and the Volunteer Wildfire Services who worked through the night to battle the blaze.

By Monday, four were being treated for injuries, said the City’s Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson, Jermaine Carelse.

“Four firefighters have been injured and are receiving medical treatment, two of the four are City firefighters,” he said.

SANParks head of communications, Rey Thakhuli has urged mountain users to stay away from Newlands Forest, Groote Schuur Estate, Rhodes Memorial, Devil’s Peak, Tafelberg Road, Vredehoek and Deer Park sections of the park.

“That includes all recreation areas below and above Tafelberg Road, which will remain closed until further notice,” he said.

UCT students were evacuated on Sunday.
Mostert’s Mill was destroyed as the fire spread to parts of Mowbray.