‘Fire damage could have been less’

A smoke cloud hung over Hout Bay last Friday.

The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa says the damage from the first major vegetation fire of the season could have been significantly less.

The hotel had to be evacuated last Friday as the fire, which began on Wednesday, spread rapidly.

Now Michael Tollman, a director of the Red Carnation Hotel Group, said that they had applied three years ago to the City to sub-divide a portion of land around the hotel.

The hotel wants to create a fire-break and create easier access for firefighters.

However, he said, their application to the City of Cape Town had been held up by “bureaucracy and red-tape”.

The hotel fire started between Camps Bay and Hout Bay and continued to spread over the weekend until rain helped firefighters’ bring it under control.

The fire had started on a private property. “It is most unfortunate that the recent incident has highlighted, once again, the inadequacy of the fire-fighting infrastructure available to the hotel and the fire-fighting authorities. The hotel was under severe threat of burning to the ground, but the fire hydrants, at the back of the property were rendered inadequate when the fire department started to pump water from the front of the hotel, due to the low water pressure,” he said.

The hotel’s 102 guests were relocated to other hotels until the Twelve Apostles Hotel reopened on Monday October 16.

Hotel management said that guests had been refunded for that night and were subsequently offered accommodation at the Table Bay Hotel.

Mr Tollman said they were grateful to the other hotels who had helped accommodate guests, but complained that discussions with the City on the matter had been frustrating. “This situation is the result of an ongoing discussion with the City of Cape Town that has come to a grinding halt. “Despite repeated pleas to bring this matter to finality over this period, the application has progressed at an exceptionally slow pace. ,” added Mr Tollman.

Michael Nel, general manager of the Twelve Apostles, also thanked the other hotels as well the firefighters. “Our most sincere thanks also go out to the approximately 140 firefighters who were deployed and Dean Ferreira and his team from NCC Environmental Services all of whom worked tirelessly and bravely in extraordinary circumstances to protect our property. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your heroism and incredible efforts in saving our hotel.” Mr Nel said that there would be a significant clean-up operation with approximately 100 staff at work in the hotel, deep-cleaning to remove the soot and the smell of smoke. According to Mr Nel, the clean-up was expected to continue for number of weeks.

Some Hout Bay residents chose to evacuate to safety as the fire crested the mountain into the valley close to midnight last Friday.

Longkloof resident Janet Moss said the fire descended down Myburgh’s Ravine and headed towards the pine forest above Longkloof.

“Some residents nearest the fire evacuated to safety along with their animals around 2am on Saturday. Many remained and as light dawned strong winds were still blowing and thick smoke covered the area making visibility extremely bad,” she said.

“The fire services were incredible and about 15 fire tenders plus numerous water vehicles arrived along with 150 Working on Fire volunteers and numerous auxiliary services who set about beating the fire back and clearing a firebreak along the upper part of Longkloof. Helicopters could not be used due to poor visibility. This put enormous pressure on the ground crews to keep the fire from encroaching Longkloof and the pristine Orangekloof Nature reserve.”

Ms Moss said residents really pulled together to provide each shift with refreshments as well as lip balm and eye drops.

“Later on Saturday evening two huge pots of curry and rice were produced by grateful residents. Another resident provided hot soup and drinks which were transported up to the night shift crew who remained on fire watch on the mountainside. Sunday morning breakfast was provided by more grateful residents and a fresh crew arrived for duty.

“The success of this operation shows how well the emergency services work together. I think I speak on behalf of everyone in Longkloof in thanking all emergency service personnel involved: Working on Fire, Volunteer Wildfire Services, TMNP Fire trucks, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue services and Nature Conservation Environmental Services for their bravery and dedication in dangerous conditions.”

Dick Gerdzen, owner of Dunes Beach Restaurant, thanked firefighters by inviting them to dinner at the restaurant. Those who were still on duty on the mountain were sent takeaway meals.

The City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security; and social services, JP Smith, said the cause of the fire was being investigated.

He appealed to residents to be especially cautious during the warmer months between November and April when Cape Town was at a high risk for uncontrolled and runaway vegetation fires.

Mr Smith said that the City’s Fire and Rescue Services teams dealt with more than 7 000 vegetation fires every year, most of which occurred in the summer months. “The combination of high temperatures and gale-force south-easterly winds is a major contributing factor in the rapid spread of fires. There are two main types of fire in Cape Town – vegetation and structural – and both can be prevented in most cases,” he said.

Mr Smith also said that the water shortage crisis in Cape Town was having a drastic impact in how they fought fires. “Firefighting is becoming more labour-intensive, with the use of bear beaters, rakes and other equipment to cordon off the areas around veld fires, as part of containing them. In addition, firefighters will use seawater, dam water and river water wherever possible.

Spokesperson for SANParks, Merle Collins, said unpredictable weather conditions led to the rapid spread of the fire in Oudekraal last week. She said that three Working on Fire Huey helicopters and one fixed-wing Spotter plane had been dispatched to Cape Town last week. In addition, 35 Table Mountain National Park-contracted firefighters, 80 Working on Fire firefighters and nine volunteers from the Volunteer Wildfire Services as well as staff from the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association were fighting the fire on the ground. In response to a query about the Twelve Apostles application to sub-divide land behind their hotel, Brett Herron, Mayoral committee member for transport and urban development, said the hotel was the cause of the delay.

“An environmental impact assessment was required in order to consider the application and the applicant failed to produce one until late in 2016,” he said.

“I must point out from the onset that the building plans that were submitted after the land use approvals were primarily to regularise unauthorised uses relating to the helipad, the massage huts and the tan deck. One of the conditions of the land use approval was the need for the developer to submit a fire management plan before building plan approval, which the applicant submitted before the building plan was approved.

“It is also important to note that the applications that the City processed were basically to regularise the status quo, including the fire break and other unauthorised uses/buildings.

“Again, given that all the applications that the City was processing were primarily to regularise the existing situation, I fail to see the connection of City approvals with the applicant’s ability to deal with any threat arising from any fire,” said Mr Herron.

“Based on the information submitted by the applicant last week, the necessary subdivision clearance and subsequent consolidation applications were approved on October 16.”