Newborn baby, mother among eight who died in raging wildfires
Mom and newborn baby among victims of Garden Route blazes
A spate of wildfires across the Garden Route, which have spread from George to the Karatara area, claimed the lives of at least eight people – including a newborn baby and its mother, two children and a toddler – on Monday, and led to the evacuation of hundreds of people.
The deaths were all in Bosdorp in the Karatara area.
Police spokesperson Captain Malcolm Poje said it was not known at this stage if the victims were related.
Three of the bodies were found together, while the others were found in the near vicinity.
Late on Monday night, he said the fire, which was moving through Karatara in the Kraaibos area above Rheenendal, was still “huge and burning out of control”.
By Tuesday morning, residents from those areas had also been evacuated.
Western Cape provincial disaster management services head Colin Deiner said: “They [victims] were trapped in Farleigh, a small settlement in the mountains between George and Knysna,” he said.
“That’s where we found the bodies today.”
Deiner said the fires had burnt about 16,600ha hectares and had forced a precautionary evacuation of three suburbs, housing more than 1,500 people.
Lightning fires have also been reported at Opsoek, in the Kannaland area, as well as Jonkersberg Mountain, to the north of Mossel Bay
In George, the residents in a number of suburbs on the outskirts of the town – bordering dense bush – had been evacuated by midday, while others in several other suburbs were asked later to leave voluntarily.
The George Municipality advised visitors and tourists to delay their visits for now.
NMU spokesperson Zandile Mbabela said the university’s George campus was also evacuated as a precaution.
“We are part of the joint operations command and are monitoring the situation closely,” she said.
The latest fire is in the Outeniqua Pass area – near the Witfontein Nature Reserve – close to the small town of Herold on the Montagu Pass, halfway between George and Oudtshoorn.
The fires started on Wednesday and have been burning out of control, despite extensive efforts over the weekend to contain them. The Karatara fire started at the weekend.
“We are trying to contain the raging fires at this stage with the deployment [of firefighters] and fire brigades from other municipalities,” Pojie said.
Western Cape local government spokesperson JamesBrent Styan said: “We are doing what we can. It’s an ongoing struggle and it remains critical at this stage. The problem is the interface between the town and the forest where this fire is coming from.
“It is coming down from the mountain‚ down the Outeniqua Pass.”
Parts of the fire in the George area had been contained by Monday, while several others were still burning out of control.
A number of firebreaks have been constructed around the town in an attempt to stop the fire from spreading into the urban area.
The Western Cape Disaster Management Centre is monitoring the fires as well as a Garden Route joint operations centre that has been established.
The Outeniqua Pass and all the hiking trails in the area have been closed and traffic is being diverted through the Robinson Pass near Mossel Bay.
Additional resources have been deployed, bolstering the number of firefighters to 400, with helicopters and planes as aerial support.
Working on Fire’s Lauren Howard said fire-fighting teams had also been brought in from the Free State and Eastern Cape to assist.
“At this stage, the George area is engulfed with smoke and ash, with a fire-fighting ground crew suppressing and mopping up burnt areas, while aerial support is on standby until the conditions become favourable to fly in.”
Western Cape local government MEC Anton Bredell said a backburn operation had been implemented in George from the railway line, up the mountain, towards the fire line.
“Due to prevailing wind, parts of George are currently enveloped by smoke and ash from fire on the mountain.
“There’s no current threat to people and infrastructure. The Outeniqua Pass has been closed to motorists.
“The public is urgently requested to refrain from recreational hiking today and over the next few days.”
George municipality spokesperson Chantel Edwards-Klose said residents in Golden Valley in the Blanco informal settlement area and Stepaside vicinity – on the outskirts of George – had been evacuated.
Residents in Fernridge, Heatherlands and Glenbarrie were also told to evacuate by 1pm.
An hour later, residents in all the suburbs bordering the bush were asked to evacuate voluntarily.
One building in the Fernridge area and two other structures are believed to have burnt down.
Edwards-Klose said police and traffic officials were assisting with the evacuations while Go George buses had been sent to help transport the residents to the Town Hall.
Fancourt – which is close to the Blanco area – sent staff who live in the evacuation-affected areas home to ensure the safety of their families.
“As a further precaution, all three golf courses, The Outeniqua, Montagu and The Links, have been closed until further notice,” Edwards-Klose said.
Azure Janneker, spokesperson for South African Breweries – which also has offices and hops farms in the vicinity – said two hops farms in Herold had been affected in varying degrees by the fires.
“There has, however, been no damage to housing on the farms and no-one had to be evacuated at this point.”
Edwards-Klose said: “Due to the heavy smoke, helicopters are not able to fly [so] no water-bombing can be done.”
These fires comes in the wake of two others along the Garden Route last week, both of which have since been extinguished. The Vermaaklikheid fire, which started on October 21 and lasted for five days, destroyed about 500km² of land, gutted nine houses and destroyed fencing and cellphone towers.
Two days after the start of that fire, another one broke out in the Tsitsikamma area, in the Lottering plantation in Storms River, bordering the Garden Route National Park.
The Otter Trail – which had been closed – was reopened on Sunday.
MTO area manager Thinus Kok said about 600km² of vegetation had been damaged.
- Additional reporting by Siyabonga Sesant and AFP