As the slopes around Hout Bay continued to be closely monitored this week, the City’s Fire and Rescue Services have lavished praise on local residents for their generosity and assistance in providing water and food to firefighters who have worked around the clock to extinguish the blaze.
The fire, which began on Wednesday February 22 and spread from Karbonkelberg to the Sandy Bay side of the mountain at the weekend, required helicopter crews from Table Mountain National Parks (TMNP), the City and Province to water bomb the fiery slopes for days on end. Firefighters, at one point numbering more than a 100, worked tirelessly in shifts and were drawn from around Cape Town.
While thankfully no property was damaged, extinguishing the blaze came at great expense. “Keeping the helicopters going for days is very expensive. We can only be thankful that this expense is shared between TMNP, the City and Province. But it is still costly,” said Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson, Theo Layne. It is estimated that it costs R30 000 to keep a helicopter in the air for one hour.
Officially, the cause of the blaze is yet to be made public, but sources this week told the Sentinel that four teenagers had been identified as starting the fire.
Ward councillor Roberto Quintas said a domestic worker employed in Dolphin Street told him she had seen four teenage boys from the Hangberg area running out of the firebreak minutes before the smoke and blaze started.
“The boys as seen by the eyewitness were allegedly wearing grey trousers and white shirts,” he said. This was also confirmed by a Hangberg community leader, who said the boys had slipped away from class during school hours and were seen heading into the mountains shortly before the fire started last week. An arson docket has been opened at the Hout Bay police station.
Mr Layne said it was important there was a joint effort when combating a fire of this size. “I must commend the efforts of the community who so kindly donated liquids and foodstuffs. The firefighters spend days away from home fighting the fires. It’s not like an office job where they can go home at the end of the day. Without these donations their job is made so much harder.” Two Hout Bay residents who exemplified this generous spirit, Alec and Casey Pooley, had more to lose than most, with their Harbour Heights home directly in the line of fire when the blaze began. “I was coaching youngsters football in Manenberg when I got a call from Casey to say there was a fire up the road. I told her she should call me again if the fire was 200 metres away, and of course that’s what happened,”Mr Pooley said.
“Luckily when I got home the wind had picked up and taken the fire away from the house. The firemen were parked outside and were working very hard, so I offered them the water from the bottles I had for my coaching session. One of my neighbours saw what I was doing, and then also offered the firefighters water. Soon we had a table and umbrella set up, and within two hours we had donations of food and liquids coming in from all over, including supermarkets and restaurants.”
Mr Pooley said firefighters from various departments and organisations were working in shifts between three and 12 hours. “They would come back down in the mountain in groups of 10 or 15. Sometimes I thought we had too much food, but then the next thing you knew it was all gone. But I can’t even imagine how much food and drink were donated.”
Asked whether he had managed much sleep in the past week, Mr Pooley said he had been averaging about six hours sleep a night. “Casey wouldn’t sleep though. She just wanted to help.”
He said he had nothing but respect for the firefighters on duty. “They were such good-spirited people. Sometimes all we could offer them were pieces of fruit, while at other times we had gourmet pizza. It didn’t matter, they were always so grateful.
“The government services of South Africa don’t always get good reviews, but the way they battled the fires was incredible. It was great having them here.”
Another resident to rally calls for donations was Debby Meinhold, who put in appeals within hours of the fire starting. “I liaised with Watchcon to get the appeals out on WhatsApp groups, and of course social media played a big role. I was in contact with Casey, so as soon as supplies came in I would run them up there.”
Ms Meinhold was away on business when wildfires struck Chapman’s Peak in 2015, and felt that on this occasion she wanted to help. “I have the hugest amount of respect for the firefighters. Every time I went to the base camp (the Pooleys house) they were smiling. The donations are our way of saying thank you to them for all their efforts. People were donating everything – chicken mayo sandwiches, bottles of Energade, energy bars and sweets. What many people don’t realise is that these guys carry about 25kg of equipment with them, so they need to carry foods with them they can nibble on while they’re up there.
“I get goosebumps just talking about what these firefighters do for us. I would definitely do it (assist firefighters) again in a heartbeat.”