South Africa

PYROCENE CAPE: Our Burning Mountain: The unearthly anatomy of a humanitarian emergency

Firefighters battle a raging fire in Vredehoek in gale-force winds and heavy smoke on 19 April 2021 in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Natural fires are older than the Mother City itself – but three days of flames in April 2021, and counting, will be remembered for their human face. For the cultural heritage lost at South Africa’s oldest university, founded in 1829. And for the people who escaped with their lives during what should have been a day of rest.

A monstrous fire laid siege to the city of Cape Town and its mountain during a global pandemic. The southeaster unleashed its might over the city. Historical landmarks burnt. Capetonians fled their homes in face masks, vulnerable people were stripped of their belongings and students were evacuated from a sanctuary of learning at the foothills of Table Mountain.

The international community watched as the unfolding disaster echoed in world headlines and six firefighters were injured in the trenches.

And, amid the bedlam and the inferno, unimaginable devastation would have been felt by the residents who could not speak for themselves – the plants and wildlife of Table Mountain National Park, a World Heritage site.

Starting on Sunday, 18 April at 8.45am, reportedly as a result of a cooking fire, the blaze that burnt hundreds of hectares was finally contained on the afternoon of Tuesday, 20 April. A second fire, under investigation, may have been ignited by an arsonist.

“I have such deep appreciation for the efforts of the City of Cape Town under Mayor Dan Plato, Table Mountain National Park, Working on Fire and Volunteer Wildfire Services, as well as the SANDF, who were all supported by the Western Cape government,” said Premier Alan Winde on Tuesday. 

“I especially want to thank the hard-working men and women who are serving on the frontline, risking their lives to put a stop to the fires. Their efforts have been nothing short of heroic. I also want to thank the many NGOs, private businesses and residents in the province who have generously made donations to support our firefighters’ efforts. 

“It is incredibly heart-warming to see how we have come together as a province and as a city in this time of crisis to save our mountain and heritage sites.”

Here’s how it happened:

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