Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cape Town is burning

Boyes Drive, Muizenberg. Photo: Shirene Briell

March began badly for Cape Town: The southern Cape Peninsula has been burning for three days, in a fire front that may be the longest the modern peninsula has ever seen. 

This mostly vegetated and mountainous area, surrounded by pockets of urbanization, is all part of Table Mountain National Park, where I have hiked countless times. 

Hout Bay - Photo: Jean Tresfon, Facebook

The fire's scope is awesome, stretching from the upper reaches of Tokai, burning fiercely in the South African night, as I write, and raging towards the Constantiaberg and lower slopes.

Tokai towards Constantia. Photo: Karen Bekker, Instagram

Then over Ou Kaapse Weg and Silvermine, east to Peck's Valley above Muizenberg, where it began, and down towards the harbour town of Kalk Bay, far west to Chapman's Peak (flaring up again, tonight) and Noordhoek Ridge above Hout Bay, and down the slopes, south to Noordhoek, where several friends live.

Muizenberg - Photo: Ryan Sheraton, Twitter

The response has been massive and dramatic, in terms of professional and volunteer firefighting teams, working for the third day in a row (today in 40'C/104'F temperatures) to save homes; fleets of choppers to ferry and dump water buckets; communities of social media-organized volunteers to support the firefighters and the displaced with food, drink and places to rest; free veterinary boarding offered for animals; local businesses and hospitals and individuals donating everything from crates of hamburgers to feed hungry firefighters to saline solution kits for smoke-blasted eyes to nebulizers for smoke inhalation.

Noordhoek - Photo: Beverley Schäfer, Twitter

The effect on property and people is potentially devastating, and the response movie-like in its stories of heroism, generosity, and the best of human behaviour.

The tortoise hero. Photo: Gale McCall

Helen Moffett (author of this blog), a Noordhoek resident writes: "My artist neighbour was trying to express what it feels like to watch dozens of total strangers, most of them volunteers, with home-made masks, their own chain-saws and shovels, risk blazing heat and roaring flames to save the homes of people they didn't know. And what it was like to be told to evacuate her horses at 2.30am -- and find strangers arriving to help."


One theme I have been watching for two days on social media has been, "the beautiful mountain has been destroyed, the fynbos is gone..."

No. That is one thing we don't have to worry about.

Most Capetonians, who live surrounded by fynbos and who should know more by now about the ecology of the gorgeous place, still do not realize that fire is GOOD for fynbos, and necessary.

"Fynbos is a fire-driven system," says my friend Rosie, a botanist living in the middle of the fire zone.

 Some plants rely on fire to germinate, produce flowers and resprout.

Chapman's Peak, March 2nd. Photo: Lee Slabber

Much of this area has not burned enough. We are afraid of fire and do not allow it. So areas grow too dense, and simply make for a bigger bonfire, later. There is also alien vegetation present - pines, wattle and hakea, which are like fueled torches when a spark comes along, and the fire burns hotter.

Drawing: Isabella Marais, Bay Primary School

Of course there are fire problems, and some are tragic: houses and humans in the way, wild animals killed or injured; later, possible landslides in subsequent, very wet winters (affecting humans, again). And fires that are too frequent, because of human actions (arson, cigarettes, escaped camp fires) do destroy sensitive vegetation.

Ou Kaapseweg. Photo: Jean Tresfon

The same Rosie has watched flames burn uncomfortably close to the Noordhoek home where she and her Don, an ecologist, will marry in three weeks. She says they may change their wedding theme to Mordor, asking guests to come as trolls and orcs, to suit the ravaged landscape.

Watsonias after fire. Photo: Vincent Mounier

But she also said, after driving over Ou Kaapseweg this morning to work at Kirstenbosch:

 "...while everyone else was going, 'Oh, so sad, so tragic,' I was going 'OMG, we are going to have the BEST SPRING!' I can hear the bulbs and Protea seeds waiting for the first rains, creaking into life."

As far as the fynbos is concerned, spring will come, and it will be good.

You can donate to Volunteer Wildfire Services here - and please do:

Volunteer Wildfire Services
Nedbank Branch: Foreshore
Branch Code: 108309
Account Number: 1083321226
If you make a donation, please use your name as a unique reference as well as sending them an email so they can thank you for your contribution:

Here are some more posts by the Frenchman and myself, about places that have now been burned. Re-visiting them will be sad, at first, but in a few months very, very interesting.

Silvermine above Muizenberg

Silvermine East

Bertie's Balcony

Silvermine and Kalk Bay Peak


  1. It must be very frightening for the people whose homes are threatened by the fires. Some of the photographs, such as from Bloubergstrand, are amazing.

    Years ago we visited Yellowstone National Park about year after a major fire. The rebirth amidst the black burned tree trunks was spectacular.

  2. So sorry for you and your beautiful country.

  3. Apparently, pine trees need heat from fires to sprout as well. Nature is amazing. After Mt. St. Helen's erupted in 1980 biologists said it would hundreds of years before the area would re-grow. The following spring was amazing....new trees, wild flowers and animals all appeared in droves. I hope the fire is under control soon and an amazing spring follows to reward the soul.

  4. I really cant beileve table mountain was burning i have all the people that lives there in my prayers and animals may god bless i love my city

  5. Native Southern Californians know all about these types of fires and we also know that fire is good for the Chapparell, although there aren't as many beautiful wild flowers (except in the desert). My dearest friend lives in the low mountains in E. San Diego and their 80 acres was completely burned with the exception of her own little cabin that was saved by a helicopter dusting of retardant. She wouldn't live anywhere else and has watched her property become verdant again.
    I love that photo of the fireman with the tortoise!!!

  6. Beautifully written Marie. I'm so glad I'm not the only thinking about the flowers that are to come! Although I do still feel a bit peculiar and guilty about my excitement over flora when so many professionals and volunteers are working round the clock and risking their lives to save property and animals, and non-fynbos land (the arboretum at Tokai... is it okay?!)
    It has been wonderful to see how the city has rallied to support the VWS - local radio had a fundraiser today and over R3 mil was pledged, which boggles the mind. And I'm sure every cent is welcome as they will have much more work in the weeks ahead, on these mountains and elsewhere (separate fires in Cape Point, Houw Hoek and the Overstand all in the last couple of days).
    (And I've just realised that I know your friend Rosie from Instagram!)

  7. This breaks my heart. Best wishes for the land's speedy recovery.

  8. Glad you wrote this, about the necessity for fires, and the restoration they bring, balance. Like all balancing, there's upheaval and torment first.

  9. A Mordor wedding for Rosie- an excellent reason for a black wedding dress!

    Marie- I understand about the fynbos, and silvermine will be beautiful, but my heart is with our mountain's lost trees xx

  10. I wonder what started the fire.. Anyway when you explained why it's good for Fynbos, I just thought how awesome nature is. Hope to see photos of Spring in your next posts... :)

  11. We who have made study of the western United States know that the First People would hunt and fish and gather in a certain area for a few seasons and then, if lightning had not already caused a fire, they would deliberately set fire to the grasslands and trees so that the earth could replenish itself. Unfortunately, there are now too many people and houses in the way of the natural processes of the earth.


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