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Accompanied by a detailed, chronologically exact fire-progression map developed to US Forest Service Standards, The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire provides in-depth, graphic case study of wildfire in the Western Cape’s Fynbos Biome and a permanent record of the March 2015 Muizenberg Fire.
With a Foreword by SANParks’ TMNP Park Manager Paddy Gordon and an Afterword by TMNP Fire Manager and CPFPA Chairman Philip Prins, it locates the Muizenberg Fire in the context of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD) and South Africa’s vexed history of developing an integrated wildfire-firefighting strategy able to counter the depredation of our Cape Floral Region Protected Areas World Heritage Site by a capital city pushed up hard against and encroaching on it.
During the furnace heat of early March, the Muizenberg Fire ripped our iconic Cape Peninsula in two, uniting Capetonians as never before. Sweeping from coast to coast, the largest single wildfire in Table Mountain National Park’s history razed 5 120 hectares of fynbos, four homes and a luxury resort.
Residents feared its vindictive ferocity. Ecologists welcomed its life-giving, rejuvenating power. Both recognised our need of wildfire on the wildland side of our city’s marginal Wildland Urban Interface – breached when Tokai Plantation exploded into a full-fledged firestorm.
The runaway blaze was met by overwhelming force and an integrated fire-management system born of international experience and centuries of dancing around wildfire management.
Under a rage-red, smoke-filled sky, accompanied by the unmistakeable clatter of dozens of fire-fighting helicopters, bombers and spotter aircraft, 2 000 wildland and urban firefighters from across the country worked tirelessly and with choreographed precision to avert disaster.
Committed to their mountain and city, Capetonians rallied behind their firefighters. Generosity and goodwill abounded. Nevertheless, after a week of potential cataclysm, the Mother City felt mugged by Mother Nature.
The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire, a graphic 176-page, hardcover, large-format publication selling for R395 (including VAT), eases the sense of despoliation brought on by those fire-filled days of March.
Written by Capetonians for Capetonians to benefit public-service organisations, it presold an astonishing 1 000 copies a full month before publication on 3 December – barely three weeks before Christmas. Using more than 200 stunning photographs, 30 0000 words and a detailed fire-progression map, it sets wildfire in the context of history and our fynbos biome’s needs.
Going beyond the fireline to educate us in preserving our biodiversity while accommodating a vital natural force, it crackles and sparks with the spectacular intensity befitting an arresting, richly-researched and definitive case study of the 2015 Muizenberg Fire.
Every picture tells a story. Know the story. Keep The Cape Aflame.
Why would Western Cape Disaster Management Buy 100 copies of
The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire?
Click daily firelines for descriptions and images. Select the View larger map icon at the right of the toolbar for a full-screen view.
© Peter Wynne (Volunteer Wildfire Services)
While we, as the caretakers of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, Table Mountain National Park, welcome the spontaneous, ecologically beneficial outbreak of fire, a key objective of our integrated Fire Management Plan is to contain and suppress this volatile force, lest it bridge the Wildland Urban Interface and cause damage to life and property. …
Where, before 2000, we had laid the foundations for the future, we have used the past 15 years to build on them. The mitigating role played by the elimination of alien vegetation, our infinitely more complex network of circum-peninsula firebreaks, and other TMNP programmes cannot be overstated. …
Your generosity and unity of spirit made the difference, and for that we, who are charged with preserving this unique environment, thank you as much as we do our heroes on the fireline.
Paddy Gordon: Manager TMNP
Covered and communicated by myriad information technologies not available to us ten years ago, the Muizenberg Fire of 2015 demonstrated how concerted, collaborative action driven by common purpose and far-sighted planning by those charged with the care of the Park, cannot fail.
It allowed us, in retrospect and as citizens not subject to a media-filtered narrative, to revisit the wisdom or otherwise of fire-management strategies preceding and following the great fires of 2000. And it allowed us, armed with easily accessible information and qualified knowledge, to consider ways of ensuring a harmonious future coexistence with that inevitable expression of nature at the Cape – wildfire.
CHAPTER 1 – Taking the Heat
Despite forestry researchers and ecologists reporting favourably on the reduction of fynbos fuel loads effected by rotational burning (from the 1940s through to 1968), South Africa’s participation from 1971 in the International Society of Mediterranean Ecology’s MEDECOS program, and the 13-year Fynbos Biome Project initiated by the CSIR in 1977, the practice of fynbos fire management remained firmly in the hands of the Department of Forestry from the 1930s until its collapse in the late 1980s.
By 1995, Cape-based fynbos ecologists found themselves high on knowledge and low on funds. The coordination of wildfire suppression remained under the aegis of the largely ineffective Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Committee (CPFPC), established by landowners in 1949. And with the population of Cape Town having doubled since 1970, the land was hopelessly fragmented.
Public land comprised 80 percent of the future Cape Peninsula National Park (renamed Table Mountain National Park in 2004), and was distributed among 14 national, provincial, regional and local landowners. The owners of the remaining 20 percent of the land numbered more than 150. The coordinated, integrated fire-management strategy sought by ecologists appeared to be more an unrealisable dream than a potential reality.
Surprisingly, both the funding and fragmentation issues were to be swiftly and dramatically resolved.
CHAPTER 2 – Firing the Fynbos
In 2010, the City’s Environmental Resource Management Department’s Biodiversity Management Branch reported that, of Cape Town’s 19 vegetation types – six of which are endemic – ten are critically endangered, three are endangered and four are vulnerable. Peninsula Sandstone and Peninsula Granite Fynbos are listed as being of ‘least concern’. Endemic to Table Mountain, its foothills and the Peninsula Chain, they fall within the boundaries of Table Mountain National Park and are protected.
The Biodiversity Management Branch predicted that, by 2020, Cape Town will no longer have any natural veld to conserve. Moreover, it will be too late to conserve more of our unique biodiversity than is already protected. Like invasive aliens, we are swiftly destroying Table Mountain National Park, other parks and nature reserves within the Cape Floral Kingdom Protected Areas World Heritage Site, and our greater Fynbos Biome.
We have, to now, been shielded from the greatest threat faced by our biodiversity. That threat is us.
Cape Town serves as a microcosm in which we can see humanity’s global effect, through need or greed, on biodiversity and the natural world. On the Cape Peninsula, competing interests vie daily for scarce resources and survival.
We are destroying our biodiversity through our
• introduction of invasive alien species to the Wildland Urban Interface
• harvesting of fynbos in the formal and informal cut-flower, medicinal and agricultural industries
• pollution of water, land and/or air
• disruption of species dynamics through the decimation of pollinators or dispersers – including long-tongued flies, butterflies and hopliine (scarab or monkey) beetles
• giving some species competitive advantage over others
• aggravation of damage caused by droughts and floods – by way of cutting paths and clearings, informal land transformation and indulging destructive leisure activities
• inadequate response to climate change
• development of infrastructure, crop cultivation, forestry plantations and mines
• abuse and misuse of fire
These factors and behaviours cause or contribute to fynbos habitat disturbance, habitat degradation and, ultimately, habitat loss.
CHAPTER 3 – Under a Red Sky
Freed of the peaks, ravines and gullies of the southeast and bypassing the southeastern suburbs of Tokai and Zwaanswyk, the firestorm ripped through the western side of the Silvermine section, devouring its dense vegetation and public boardwalks before, two hours later, at 03:00, it dropped like a 10-kilometre wave of lava from the mountains into the residential areas of Noordhoek, Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay, cutting off all access roads bar Main Road along the False Bay coast.
Cape Town awoke to scenes redolent of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now. Billowing clouds of brown, grey and ashen smoke filled a sky under which bright orange flame writhed and leapt like snakes or danced like demented shamans. The unmistakeable clatter of Hueys, flying in formation to drop water on the burning forests, filled the stifling air which – later in the day – reached a record high of 42.4° Celsius, making Cape Town the hottest place on Earth.
None of the 410 firefighters in the field expressed a love of the smell of smoke in the morning.
A large part of the Arboretum was aflame. The historic Wood Owl Cottage on the Tokai Manor Estate had been gutted. Two houses in Almondbury Lane in Zwaanswyk – from where Gabrielle Boyle’s plea for help had come some 36 hours earlier, had been destroyed or razed. A house in Thorpe Close had been badly damaged.
Fire continued to blaze through and consume the forests above the Porter Reform Estate through the morning. Firefighters could do little and helicopters nothing as fire whirls – fire-induced whirlwinds of flame – rose high into the air, brutal testimony to the turbulent vortices of furnace-hot air sucking in burning vegetation.
CHAPTER 4 – Brothers in Arms
Compliant and well-prepared CPFPA member properties, including Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia Wine Estates and Tierboskloof Estate, were largely self-reliant as their ability to protect and defend their properties was well-documented and clearly understood. Their preparedness lent additional weight to the many well-trained and fully equipped resources that ultimately contained and suppressed the blaze.
No single organisation better exemplified the diversity of firefighters than WoF, which called on some 500 firefighters from its 28 bases across Cape Town and the Western Cape and trucked in a further 250 firefighters – including an all-female crew – from the Eastern Cape, Free State, North West and Kwazulu-Natal provinces.
Above the grimly determined fire crews flew WoF helicopters stationed at TMNP’s Newlands Incident Command Base, as well as fixed-wing water bombers and spotter aircraft from as far afield as Stellenbosch. Most had relocated there from bases further afield.
Comparing the Muizenberg Fire of March 2015 to those of January 2000, it was quite clear that our firefighting services had undergone a sea change. We were watching a well-rehearsed, seemingly choreographed firefighting effort – firefighting as ballet, if you will.
Capetonians, armed to the eyeballs – literally – with digital-media wear, cameras and access to the Internet might well have asked, “Just who are these people?”
CHAPTER 5 – Breaching the Divide
The Prinskasteel Valley was alight and looked set to blow up. TMNP Operations Section Chief Clinton Dilgee was immediately consulted and, with discipline honed by experience, the crew bosses and firefighters beneath Silvermine Ridge swiftly gathered their vehicles and equipment. Half-an-hour later, buffeted by violent fire whirls, they withdrew from the fireline.
Reaching the western edge of Zwaanswyk just after 02:00, VWS members that had spent at least 12 hours in extreme conditions subject to vast fluctuations in temperature, limited oxygen and a surfeit of smoke, looked back on the wildland they had vacated. The area in which they had been working was ablaze; fire and dust whirls raged about them, the forests bounding the suburb’s northern perimeter were afire and flaming embers were raining down on Zwaanswyk.
The Tokai Plantation, its canopy engulfed in a sea of flame, had transmogrified into a blinding glow. Much like a volcano, it had erupted to spew fire, ash and embers in every direction.
It was apparent to the VWS firefighters that they and the residents of Zwaanswyk faced not only a firestorm. They were in danger of being encircled. Following the TMNP Operations Section Chief’s radioed instructions, the VWS crew boss gathered his lieutenants and briefed them on alerting residents on their need to evacuate.
Six minutes after reaching their staging area and accounting for all their members, VWS fire crews – their available sirens wailing and their members ringing doorbells, fanned out into the suburb to urge residents to escape potential catastrophe. Subject to swirling eddies and vortices of super-heated gasses, residential gardens around them were spontaneously combusting.
They were to continue their task for two hours.
Barely half-an-hour later, when built structures started bursting into flame, a call for assistance was put through to the Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services (CTFRS) Incident Command Post at Lakeside, ten kilometres away.
At 03:45, having rescued an elderly resident from her home next to the old reservoir at which they had gathered an hour-and-forty-four minutes earlier, VWS firefighters alerted their colleagues prompting evacuation that the exit to the suburb was in danger of being cut off by the advancing flames.
As CTFRS fire trucks, accompanied by a 12,000-litre all-terrain behemoth of a tender capable of speeds of 140 kph from the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA), arrived at the foot of the suburb, the VWS supervising crew boss pulled his firefighters back to a designated safe point, conducted a headcount and drew up lists of members still urging residents to evacuate.
Two of them were VWS volunteer firefighters Ryan Heydenrych and Mike Boyd, who discovered that the Collings couple – after leaving their home on their neighbour’s instructions – had stopped their car on Zwaanswyk Road. Geoffrey Collings had returned to search for the couple’s beloved cat and was standing, apparently confused, in the road. The house was ablaze and hedgerows either side of the narrow thoroughfare were spontaneously bursting into flame.
As Ryan Heydenrych writes at the beginning of this chapter, it was into this volatile Hell broth of smoke, ash, embers and vortices of highly combustible, super-heated pockets of swirling gas that he and Mike Boyd ran in a last-ditch attempt to find the elderly couple’s pet.
CHAPTER 6 – Like Moths to a Flame
You’ve probably not heard of 4CCharity. They probably don’t mind. They weren’t looking for our attention. They merely wanted to make a difference. And they did. An image on Twitter of a motor vehicle piled high with “Our contribution to firefighters. Eyegene, buckets, Panados & Tab cool drinks. To TEARS lots of dog and cat food” says infinitely more of ‘those that have’ than can any number of words.
Leading the way on the donations front, those who thought they had – including 10-year-old Callum and a group of children of Masiphumelele, gave their pocket money to the firefighting effort and spurred other children to do the same. Those who believed they did not have, such as three-year-old Bella Venter of Fish Hoek, volunteered their labour.
If Capetonians opened their hearts to those fighting the Muizenberg and other fires raging throughout the Western Cape, they opened their doors to each other.
Civic associations, community support forums, businesses, neighbourhood watches, private emergency rescue services, faith-based and religious organisations and community policing forums swamped private, civic and public-utility buildings to initiate a massive, self-organising and logistically complex disaster relief effort supporting evacuees, those who’d suffered damage or injury, homeowners threatened by fire, domestic and wild animals and the firefighters themselves.
With their presence made known immediately through Web-based publications and social media, what had been impossible 15 years before, was now the common-sense thing to do – and Capetonians, mindful of, but not reliant on, officialdom – did it without fear, fuss or favour and, importantly, with good humour.
CHAPTER 7 – The Torched and Tortured
Within hours of the firestorm erupting shortly after 01:00 on Wednesday morning, the Wood Owl Guest Cottage was a smoking ruin. By 06:00, amidst still-burning pines in danger of collapsing, HWS managers and rangers, members of the BTT (including members of the City’s Environment Resource Management Department’s Biodiversity Branch), members of the Cape of Good Hope (CoGH) SPCA Wildlife Unit and veterinarians from the City of Cape Town and CapeNature were on the scene.
The remaining members of the formerly large, 73-member troop had moved to the riverine Fairy Forest nearby.
Unable to move the troop by midday and asked to leave the area by firefighting authorities, the contingent felt the troop to be out of danger and returned on Thursday morning at 06:00 to undertake what would become daily assessments until Monday, 9 March. All injured baboons were assessed by veterinarians and those with minor injuries were allowed to remain with the troop, subject to close monitoring over several weeks.
With the fire having released many thousands of seeds from the pines’ cones, the Tokai troop’s foraging behaviour changed little and, while they continued to sleep in the vicinity of the gutted Wood Owl Cottage Guest House, they did not lack food. Moreover, with autumn promising rain and fresh shoots, they appeared to be in a good position.
The 29-member Zwaanswyk troop, which followed much the same foraging pattern as the Tokai troop, did not lose its sleep site. However, a count of troop members indicated that a juvenile had died, possibly due to smoke inhalation. No body was found.
Through Wednesday, fire destroyed much of the 72-strong Constantia troop’s home range and, with assistance from HWS rangers, the Buitenverwachting, Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia wine farms allowed the Constantia and Mountain troops to feed on harvested vineyards, which still contained grapes, and barley planted between the rows of vines. While this afforded the 49-member Mountain troop extra food, its range above Buitenverwachting suffered the least damage and close monitoring in the fortnight following the fire showed them to have sufficient unburnt vegetation on which to forage.
Extremely low autumn and winter rains saw far fewer shoots sprouting than expected. However, for the Zwaanswyk troop, the pine-seed bonanza continued as Cape Pine harvested burnt pine and gum compartments. The Tokai, Mountain and Constantia troops continued to gorge themselves on raisins and barley at Buitenverwachting, Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia.
CHAPTER 8 – A New Lease on Life
The first soft autumn rains saw the appearance of fire lilies and most of us, secure in the knowledge that a third of Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) had not disappeared in a ball of fire and a cloud of smoke, returned to following the regular news cycle or posting fridge magnets to Facebook.
The less sedentary, satisfied by a rush of apparently previously entombed experts telling us that fire was “a jolly good thing” and “absolutely necessary for fynbos survival”, immediately returned to their normal ways, strapped their bicycles to the back of their cars, headed off to Tokai, Silvermine and other places and wondered what the hell SANParks was doing blocking public access to our newly invigorated and revitalised recreational domain.
Those who came back down off the mountain seemed strangely elated and gleeful – as if, in surveying the still-smoking, powdered, black-and-white seamed sands, they could hear feathered seeds popping from protea cones with the exuberance of breakfast cereal characters leaping from cartons opened on TV advertisements.
“Bursting” and “erupting” were frequently used to describe the phenomenon.
They reported great swathes of white and brown seed – a feast too munificent for even the most food-deprived insects and rodents emerging from their burrows to pack their cheeks and stuff their faces – spread like great carpets of rust by a wind playing with patterns.
Across the supposedly dead land marched disciplined armies of ants. Ignoring their lack of cover from countless predatory birds seeking alternative sources of food, legions of other insects took to the road and air with martial precision.
Of course, none of this order or focus lasted.
“This intervention is necessary as, under the pines, the serotinous species (those that store their seeds on the plants between fires) die out and thus do not have a seed bank. Recovery of these species from the seed bank is not possible, and it will take dozens of fire cycles (on average every 15 years – or over 200 years) for the plants to disperse back naturally. Proteas are dominant overstorey plants in Fynbos, playing a major role in many fynbos cycles and their absence from the restored ecosystem for so long will hamper restoration.”
Dr Tony Rebelo: Restoration Ecologist
CHAPTER 9 – The Fire Within
As laypeople mesmerised by wildfire, we see small, instantly recognisable groups of two, three or four Hueys – like gnats seeking to ward off a thunderstorm – taking on monstrous fires. The Bell UH-1H Huey (17 metres long, 2.6 metres wide and 3.4 metres high) is a large, functional, 2,400-kilogram aircraft, which, when fully loaded, weighs well over 4,000 kilograms.
There is no such thing as a soft emergency landing in a Huey. When news of Bees Marais’ forced landing came through from Cape Point on Sunday, 8 March, the Newlands’ Incident Command Base sealed its Operations and Planning sections. While continuing their necessary work, several seasoned personnel from various organisations broke down in tears.
The call for a mortuary van was not long in coming and grief overwhelmed all who were aware of the incident.
CHAPTER 10 – Freeze Flame Photography
How does an internationally acclaimed, globally syndicated photojournalist ‘get the story’? Reading Cape Town’s award-winning European Press Agency photojournalist, Nic Bothma, it seems it all boils down to professionalism, skill, passion, grit, a never-say-die attitude and unstinting hard work. Like Nic, each contributor who volunteered their images of the Muizenberg Fire of 2015 to this publication – be they published or not – knows this to be true.
Two percent of wildfires, which occur principally during extreme conditions and escape initial attack operations, become major incidents. Where residential developments on the WUI are exposed to extreme wildfire conditions and homeowners have not paid adequate attention to their defensible space, i.e. their home and its immediate surroundings, built structures and people are endangered. Because responsibility for preventing such fires falls largely on the property owner, I strongly urge residents living on the urban edge to address conditions within their defensible space.
Philip Prins: Fire Manager TMNP
Media Image Bank
Subject to acknowledgement of the photographer and the written consent of The Cape Aflame Project Team Marketing and Promotions consultant, Kate Dearlove, media may apply for single-use access to copies of the following images to illustrate text previewing, reviewing or promoting The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire.
Any unauthorised use is prohibited in terms of existing South African copyright law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty.
A YouTube playlist of videos of the March 2015 Muizenberg Fire
More to follow shortly …