Evacuees flock to hall in Sedgefield for aid
While the majority of fires which swept plantations and bush along the Garden Route had been brought under control by late on Wednesday, large-scale humanitarian efforts were still under way in areas where dozens of people had lost their homes.
Hundreds of residents, who were either forced to evacuate or voluntarily left their homes in the face of fierce blazes driven by strong winds, flocked to the Sedgefield community hall, where aid organisations provided shelter and distributed aid.
The aid provided by Gift of the Givers and local disaster aid organisation Rebuild Eden ranged from clothing and hot meals on site, to food provisions and blankets.
While the majority of those at the hall were from Farleigh – a small, SANParks-managed community where eight people, including children, perished in the blaze – the hall was also home to people from several other communities where fires had come perilously close to their houses.
A number of Farleigh fire victims were angry that the community had been split into two separate groups during the rescue and disaster management efforts, with some 70 people – described by emergency volunteers as about 25 families – accommodated in chalets at SANPark’s Ebb-andFlow Rest Camp in Wilderness.
Direct relatives of the eight residents who died are being accommodated at Buffalo Bay, where access was denied to the media.
The remainder of the affected Farleigh residents – who questioned the different treatment given to their fellow community members – were packed into the Sedgefield Community Hall.
At Ebb-and-Flow on Wednesday, the evacuees were milling around the resort as SANParks employees and volunteers sorted out a significant number of food parcels.
Many expressed concern over where they were going to be housed once the disaster situation had been normalised.
They said, however, they were being well treated and were grateful for the assistance and provisions they were receiving.
At the Sedgefield hall, Gift of the Givers operations manager Mario Ferreira described the massive aid effort being carried out in the greater region.
“It is not just the Farleigh community which is being assisted,” he said.
“We have been providing assistance to scores of firefighters across the region, including those who are fighting the fires in the George area,” he said.
“Then there are many more residents from small towns and individual homesteads who have been assisted.
“Millions of rands worth of aid, in various forms, has already been distributed.”
Ferreira said about 200 Farleigh residents were being assisted in Sedgefield, but the total number being assisted was in excess of 500 people.
This included 280 people who were being assisted in George alone.
Asked how much longer aid would be provided, Ferreira said this was unknown as the bigger challenge was that many of the affected community members no longer had homes to return to.
“Finding new, permanent homes for people is going to be a major challenge,” he said.
“The lesson we all need to learn from this is that one cannot think that a disaster such as this cannot happen twice.
“We should learn from this and put measures in place to ensure it does not happen again.”
Disaster management stalwart Lesley Langham, of Rebuild Eden, heaped praise on the Sedgefield community who, she said, had shown exceptional empathy for the fire victims and backed this up with hours of volunteer work and significant donations.
“Ninety percent of the volunteers who assisted during the huge fires in Knysna last year are back here again, working long hours and doing amazing work,” Langham, who played a leading role in community assistance after the Knysna fires in 2017, said.
Gift of the Givers said Rebuild Eden had developed an outstanding and highly effective model and structures to handle such disasters.
Rebuild Eden developed a warehousing programme to store donations from the 2017 Knysna disaster and set up a R20 store (selling left-over donations) to raise funds.
“This money and all the other programmes we put in place allowed us to respond to the latest disaster immediately,” Langham said.
“To date, we have spent around R1.7m on the latest fire victims, and this came from the fund that we had established.”