Mkhululi Ndamase, Shaanaaz de Jager, Karen van Rooyen and Graeme Hosken, Sapa
FIRES raging through the wealthy holiday town of St Francis Bay last night destroyed scores of houses, boats, restaurants and businesses, trapping terrified residents as overwhelmed firefighters battled to contain the blaze.
With gale-force winds driving the flames, emergency workers and volunteers raced to evacuate large sections of the town.
By midnight, more than 100 houses were confirmed destroyed, with hundreds more in danger of being set alight. Within minutes, the blaze – thought to have been started by a spark from a late afternoon braai and compounded by a power outage which took down telephone lines – swept through the town’s luxury thatch villas and mansions, most of them worth R6-million or more, razing everything in its path as the flames jumped the canals, which stretch and wind for 12km through pristine nature areas.
The majority of the destroyed houses – owned by wealthy South Africans and foreigners – were in the luxury suburb known as the Canals.
With gale-force winds tearing in from the sea, emergency workers raced to shut down bridges and stop people from trying to reach their homes, many watching in horror as they were destroyed.
Royal Wharf Marine Resort manageress Annemi Bosch said she received a call from the security company at about 5pm saying a fire had broken out in one of the 20 units.
“It’s terrible … The people were sleeping upstairs and smelled smoke and climbed out through the balcony,” she said. Ten units were destroyed. “All the units were occupied, but there were no injuries. We evacuated everyone,” she said.
“In the 15 minutes it took me to get there, two of the units were burnt down.”
Bosch said everybody had helped – wetting the grass to prevent the fire spreading and carrying furniture from the units.
“People just came out on their own, but the wind was so bad.”
Bosch said while they were still investigating the cause of the fire, reports that it had been started by a braai were not true.
The resort’s management would travel to St Francis Bay today to assess the damage.
Resident Neville Hulett said the fire started at a Royal Wharf unit shortly after a power outage at about 5pm. About 90% of the houses destroyed were unoccupied, he said.
“There were gale-force winds and immediately the unit next door caught alight. Within half an hour, five houses were burnt. Within an hour, 10 houses and within two hours, about 20.
“The fire brigade came in and what they should have been doing was wetting the roofs of the houses that weren’t burning.
“But the water pressure started disappearing so those who were wetting their own roofs, couldn’t do so. The houses that were already burning kept burning and those that weren’t burning started burning.”
Hulett, 53, who has lived in St Francis Bay all his life, said while he was fortunate that his house was not “downwind” and had not been affected, his daughter’s surfing coach – current Springbok coach Graham Hynes – was not as lucky.
“We took out what we could and I was trying to wet his roof,” Hulett said. However, because his broken arm was in a cast, he battled and the house was gutted.
Hulett said Hynes, in his 80s, was too distressed to talk about the tragedy. He said this was the second time Hynes’s house had burnt – the previous time was about 15 years ago.
“I don’t know if he’s going to survive this one,” he said.
Hulett, whose dad Leighton founded St Francis Bay in 1954, said there had been other fires in the town – including one about 30 years ago in which 12 houses were gutted – but this was “without a doubt” the worst in the town’s history.
“In fact, it’s one of the worst in the country. I don’t know of anywhere else where up to 80 houses burnt. I personally saw 15 burning,” he said.
Bev Mortimer, editor of the St Francis Chronicle, said Hynes was left with nothing. “His whole life’s possessions, all his awards are gone. All he has is a T-shirt and his swimming trunks. Not even a cellphone.”
Mortimer said she did not think the houses would be repaired in time for the festive season. “I don’t think there’s going to be Christmas this year,” she said.
Kelvin and Liz Atkinson lost everything. Speaking at the St Francis Bay Golf Club where they were waiting for friends, the Atkinsons said while their La Digue Place home had burnt down, they were grateful to be alive. “We just grabbed our two dogs and a few pictures of our children graduating. We did not want to see our house burning, so we got in the car and left. We built the house in 1986 and moved in about eight or so years ago. It was an ideal house. We were just finishing up a few things,” Kelvin Atkinson said.
Liz said they would pick up the pieces and start from scratch.
“Material things can always be replaced. I just hope that no one was killed.
“The people of St Francis Bay have been really helpful opening up their homes to us. We also lost our chronic illness medication but the chemist came and gave us a month’s supply,” she said.
Barry Swart of Johannesburg, who also owned a holiday home in St Francis, said his neighbours had phoned him.
“I am absolutely speechless. We had the house for 20 years and had great memories there.
“Now we have lost everything. The whole family is absolutely devastated,” Swart said.
Retiree Oliver Oberem, who was in Witbank last night and was due to travel to the Kruger National Park today, said they had lived in St Francis for 13 years.
“We went up with friends [to Witbank] and left our car at home, and now we have lost everything. This is a terrible blow because my wife and I are both in our 70s and retired.
“All our memories are gone. They went up with the fire. I have no idea what we will do. I really do not. We will be looking for a flight back,” he said.
Resident Marc Howell, who lives opposite the Royal Wharf, said he had checked on the fire at about 5pm, but did not need to evacuate.
“The fire has devastated the Canals area. I can’t even begin to imagine how many homes have been affected,” he said.
Maureen Andreka, of Seaview, Port Elizabeth, said they had “owned” a week at the resort’s unit 17 every November since 1999 as part of their timeshare and had been booked in from November 30.
“I’m just a one-week resident there. Other people have lost their homes,” she said.
“I feel helpless sitting here, but it’s wonderful the way people are pulling together.”
Kwanele Mooi arrived at the scene as the third unit started burning. “I helped to get some of the furniture out, but we couldn’t get everything out before the houses burnt down,” he said.
Estate agent Esme Welman said it was absolute pandemonium.
“There are not enough firefighters. The National Sea Rescue Institute has called for civilians who are able to come and assist.
“We tried to get firefighters from Port Elizabeth here but there were huge delays because we are ‘out’ of their region. First we were wiped out by floods now fire is destroying what is left,” she said. “It is beyond tragedy. Everything that is here is going – and not slowly.
“You can see the flames destroying the houses, boats and businesses. You can see here and there houses and restaurants with gas exploding. It sounds like war. People are screaming and crying. They want to get to their homes, but they can’t because of the danger.
“Volunteers have shut off the bridges, but there are still some people who have refused to leave their homes and could be trapped,” she said, explosions erupting in the background.
She said the houses destroyed were worth millions of rands.
“None of these houses are worth anything less than a million. I have had wealthy homeowners who run businesses phoning me to find out if their houses are alright. I don’t know what to tell them. I haven’t got the heart to break the news to them,” Welman said.
She said winds, blowing at nearly 60km/h, were leaving a trail of destruction.
“We are slowly being encircled. Soon there will be nowhere to go except to the sea and into the canals. Those fighting the fire are saying that it might be too much and that they should retreat to try and save what they can. This is terrifying.”
Paramedic Thea Marx said they had treated many people for smoke inhalation.
“Fortunately, there are no serious injuries yet, but we do not know if everyone has managed to get out safely,” she said.
Captain John Fobian, from provincial disaster management, said the cause of the fire had not been determined. Officials had been unable to establish by last night exactly how many homes were destroyed.
Fobian said firefighters from Jeffreys Bay, Humansdorp and Nelson Mandela Bay had rushed to the scene to assist, but battled because of gale-force winds.
He said various volunteers, including the NSRI, were also assisting. Fobian said most of the homes were holiday houses but the residents who were there had been evacuated. There were no reports of injuries or deaths.
“We are still waiting for pumps to come through from Nelson Mandela Bay. These pumps are big trucks that can pump water out of a canal or river or anywhere and then this water is dispersed onto the fire,” Fobian said. He said a “full investigation” would start today.
Late last night, Kouga Municipality spokeswoman Laura-Leigh Randall said more than 100 houses had burnt down.