Massive evacuations were under way in Knysna late last night as raging wildfires spread through the town. The Knysna Provincial Hospital was among the structures in flames as the fires engulfed the town‚ according to one resident, with more than 50 houses burnt down.
This came as the Cape storm left a trail of death and destruction yesterday as extreme weather, flooding and heavy seas pounded the Western Cape.
Rampant bush and forest fires fanned by gale-force winds swept through the Eastern Cape and other parts of the Southern Cape.
At 10pm last night, it was confirmed that 15 buses were being sent from George to evacuate panic-stricken Knysna residents.
“The fire began on one side but is now spreading to the other side of the town and the hospital is on fire,” journalist and columnist Ivo Vegter said. “Basically the whole town is burning.” At least three people have died in the fires.
Knysna mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies said: “These are the worst fires I have seen in the 45 years I’ve lived in Knysna.”
Access to and from Knysna – both from Plettenberg Bay and George side – are closed to all but the emergency services.
Earlier‚ Vegter took to Twitter as the scope of the catastrophe became clear.
“Knysna is burning down. This is a disaster of epic proportions.
“I’m stuck in fleeing traffic. Not sure I’ll have a home tomorrow‚” he tweeted.
Lieschka Cox, 38, who escaped the fire with her two daughters, a dog and a hamster, said her family had lost everything.
At home in Green Pastures when the fire broke out, the family initially fled to her mother’s house in Knysna Heights, only to have to evacuate again.
Speaking from Leisure Island where the family had taken refuge last night, Cox said both her mother and mother-in-law had lost their homes.
Cox said the fire was terrifying and her eight- and five-year-old daughters had been devastated.
“My girls took it the hardest. There was a lot of crying and asking what was going on,” she said.
“There was smoke everywhere. We could barely breathe. We are lucky to be alive.”
Describing the multiple times the family had to evacuate, Cox said that after reaching her mother’s home they had had to leave again, fleeing to her sister’s house in Lower Old Place, before once again fleeing for Leisure Island.
“I saw homes engulfed by flames. I have never seen a fire spread so fast,” she said.
“Emotionally, I have no words except that I am grateful to be alive and have my whole family with me.
“My heart goes out to all those who have suffered through this ordeal.”
George municipal spokesman Chantal Edwards-Klose said communication along the Southern Cape was extremely difficult due to Telkom and certain cellular networks being down.
Knysna fire chief Clinton Manual said there was very little hope of stopping the fire and they would just continue evacuating all those in its path.
Cape Town, which itself faces massive problems, has sent eight fire engines and 20 firefighters to help fight the blaze and Working on Fire has deployed more than 120 firefighters to the area.
At least eight people are known to have died in the Western Cape – three in the Knysna area, one in Cape Town and four in Paarl – while hundreds of families were left homeless as the deluge and runaway wildfires battered the coastline from the Cape Peninsula to Port Elizabeth, wreaking devastation.
Emergency services were stretched to the limit in cities and towns.
Cape Town, Hout Bay and Paarl
The storm battered the Mother City, with one person crushed by a wall blown over onto his Wendy house.
City of Cape Town disaster management spokesman Charlotte Powell said almost 800 families had also been left homeless.
The heartache of losing a home to a natural disaster was repeated for hundreds of people in Hout Bay.
Structures destroyed by the storm were built less than three months ago for families who lost everything when much of Imizamo Yethu was razed by a fire in March.
Yesterday’s disaster was down to a northwester that snarled and snapped at the heels of wary Capetonians.
Scores of large trees were toppled by the gales and social media was inundated with photographs showing where they landed on cars and houses.
Parts of the roof were ripped off at Cavendish Square in Claremont and at a Comair catering building in Airport Industria.
Dozens of smaller buildings also lost roofs, walls and fences, but informal settlements bore the brunt.
In Taiwan, in Khayelitsha, Noxolo Masilika said: “In this area alone, 18 families were affected. Four shacks were blown away and others were washed away.”
She said she had helped to deliver a baby in a shack in the midst of the storm.
The child’s mother had lost her home a few moments earlier and sought refuge with a neighbour.
“There was hardly enough room to move inside. We moved crates and other household items to accommodate her,” Masilika said.
“The ambulance took long to arrive because paramedics get robbed in this area. The 33-year-old mother and child are safe.”
Clutching a worn identity document‚ Nomvuyiso Ndevu pointed to the flattened remains of her house at the disaster relief camp in Hout Bay which collapsed on her brother. He escaped unharmed.
“I came home from work . . . and found our house was down‚” she said.
Schools were empty – the decision had been taken to close them for the day – which meant no pupils were injured when at least 23 schools sustained storm damage. In Paarl, four people died on a farm after a lightning strike started a fire.
The Garden Route
Firefighters responded to at least 26 fires along the Garden Route and most of Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Sedgefield and Wilderness were covered in smoke.
Eden disaster management boss Gerhard Otto said three people – a farm worker, his wife and their son – had died in a fire in Rheenendal just outside of Knysna.
He said details around the deaths were still unclear, but all available staff had been deployed to deal with the fires.
The areas evacuated included Brenton, Belvedere, Welbedacht, Nania, Eastford, Green Pastures and Knysna Heights.
The N2 between Knysna and Pletternberg Bay was closed due to low visibility.
There was also no power to either town for most of the day.
Humansdorp, Orange Grove and St Francis Bay
Kouga Municipality spokeswoman Laura-Leigh Randall said firefighters had contained a huge veld fire that had broken out at the Orange Grove farm behind Humansdorp yesterday afternoon.
Four small houses had burnt down and farmers had been asked to leave the area.
“Other smaller bush fires have been brought under control at Boskloof and the industrial area at Humansdorp and the St Francis Bay Golf Course.
“A fire at the Humansdorp waste site is also under control.”
Nelisa Mambo, who lives on the Orange Grove Farm, said the fire had damaged three houses.
Nelson Mandela Bay
Municipal spokesman Mthubanzi Mniki said veld fires had been reported in the Greenbushes, Barcelona, Van Stadens and Bushbuckridge areas.
Farm Comm chairman Willie Bosch said he had spent most of the day battling the Bushbuckridge fire, which would probably continue to rage throughout the night.
“Half of Bushbuckridge is gone. Remember, there are a lot of game animals such as zebras, kudus and impala. It is a massive fire. This is gonna be a long one,” he said.
What to expect today in the Eastern Cape
SA Weather Service spokesman Garth Sampson said gale-force winds up to 64km/h could occur between Plettenberg Bay and Port Alfred. “We will get more wind than anything else,” he said. [The] north-westerly winds will make conditions ideal for veld fires.”
He said the cold front would start clearing from the west by tonight and only isolated showers were expected.
Temperatures are set to plummet today, with light snowfall expected in Elliot (a low 0°C) and Barkly East (–3°C).
Port Elizabeth will hit a low 9°C, East London 12°C, Port Alfred 8°C, Uitenhage 5°C, Somerset East 2°C and Grahamstown 6°C.