Cape Town forest fire widely contained, damage assessed

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) – Firefighters largely contained a major fire on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain on Tuesday, when the city began to accept the damage caused by what the authorities described as one of the worst fires in the area in years.

About 90% of the fire was contained, the Mesa Mountain National Park official said, but only after the firefighters worked again overnight and entered the third day fighting the flames.

These firefighters faced “extreme circumstances” overnight, said the Working on Fire organization, which specializes in dealing with forest fires and has helped the city’s fire department. The Table Mountain operation has now reached the “cleanup” stage, said Working on Fire.

Fire-fighting helicopters threw water into areas where the fire was still burning and smoking on the rocky peaks of Table Mountain. South African army helicopters joined the operation to support the fire department after the helicopters stopped on Monday because of strong winds.

The winds had subsided, but the thick smoke still hung over the city and firefighters were watching the explosions.

“Our first priority remains the total extinction of all lines of fire,” said local government official Anton Bredell. “Then, in the coming days, firefighters will continue to muffle the affected areas and monitor the explosions until we are 100% sure that the fire is out.

“As soon as the fire is extinguished, an investigation into the cause of the fire will be conducted.”

Forest fires are reasonably common in the mountains and peaks around Cape Town during the hot and dry summer months and become especially dangerous and unpredictable when fed by strong coastal winds.

Sometimes they light up because of the heat and dry soil, and other times they are the result of fires caused by people who explode out of control.

This fire started at dawn on Sunday and, fueled by strong winds, hit the mountain slopes towards residential areas overlooking the center of Cape Town.

Neighborhoods were evacuated while firefighters kept the flames under control and away from homes – sometimes with just a few meters to spare. About 250 firefighters were mobilized.

In all, 11 buildings were destroyed, six firefighters were injured in fighting the fire and nine others were treated for breathing problems due to smoke inhalation, city officials said.

The Cape Town University campus was one of the first places to be hit and appears to have suffered the most damage. Numerous university buildings were burned, including part of a nearly 100-year-old library containing rare books and manuscripts on African studies. The university said that some of these “priceless” works were lost, but it was unclear how much.

Other historic buildings nearby, including a 225-year-old windmill and a renowned restaurant and tea room near a memorial to British colonial politician Cecil Rhodes, also caught fire.

In the tea room, half-full plates and cups were on charred tables amid the ruins, showing how suddenly customers and employees were forced to flee. Small fires were still burning in the nearby forest.

The South African government said a residence owned by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure was completely destroyed by the fire. The house was empty at the time, but family members of a national minister and two deputy ministers had to be evacuated from their nearby homes. The fire also hit South African Vice President David Mabuza’s residence in Cape Town, the government said.

Some 600 hectares (1,482 acres) of land have been burned, estimated the authority of Mesa Mountain National Park.