South African firefighters contained a wildfire along Cape Town’s Table Mountain on Monday more than 24 hours after it began, damaging historical sites and forcing people to evacuate their homes and schools to close.
Winds of up to 45 kilometres per hour put water-bombing helicopters out of action and more than 250 firefighters were tackling fast-spreading flare-ups from the ground only.
Officials believe the blaze may have been started deliberately and a suspect was detained on Sunday evening. They also said it was one of the most damaging cultural heritage fires ever.
“With regards to the damage to historical buildings, it is quite substantial,” said Arlene Wehr, the incident commander at the city’s fire services, at a media briefing.
City of Cape Town mayor, Dan Plato, described the fire, which has so far destroyed more than 400 hectares of vegetation in the Table Mountain National Park, as one of the biggest in the city’s recent history.
The fire started early Sunday morning on the slopes of Devils’ Peak, another part of Cape Town’s mountainous backdrop, forcing University of Cape Town students to evacuate residences as runaway flames set several campus buildings ablaze, including a library housing historic books and scripts.
Other properties damaged includes the popular hikers’ restaurant at Rhodes memorial and the thatch-roofed Mostert Mill, built around 1796 and South Africa’s oldest working mill.
“It is not only the historic buildings themselves that have been lost, but their contents and collections,” said the Cape Town Heritage Trust in a statement.
Two firefighters sustained burn wounds and were hospitalised for treatment, officials said, as a change in wind direction saw the fire spread rapidly towards the city bowl overnight.
All schools in the Vredehoek area were asked to evacuate, a disaster management spokeswoman said, adding that homes used to accommodate travelling cabinet ministers in Walmer Estate were also being cleared.
A city councillor confirmed one suspect was arrested last night on Devil’s Peak after confessing that he had deliberately started an additional fire in the Vredehoek area. Authorities are investigating whether the man, who lives rough in the bush, was responsible for the first fire close to UCT.
Cape Town, which is coming to the end of its high fire alert season at the end of April, regularly battles fires close to the inner city, with the last large fire in 2020, although climate change and higher temperatures are a concern.