Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Dear Capetonians,
Philip Prins
            As fires are a regular occurrence all round Cape Town every year you would think that the Table Mountain National Park’s (TMNP) experts would know how to deal with them by now.
          When this one started in the early hours of Sunday 12 February their advice ensured that not only were people and homes needlessly endangered, but a huge amount of money was spent unnecessarily on fire fighting helicopters. 
            Arsonists evidently started it, but the way it was dealt with you would be excused if you thought it was one of TMNP’s “prescribed burns” that it does from time to time as part of its ecological management.  
            It involved the Noordhoek wetlands, an uninhabited flat, sandy area of 100 hectares or more next to the sea not far from Cape Point. This is covered in indigenous fynbos and other highly combustible vegetation.
            On the side opposite the sea, below a nearby mountain is the Wildervoel vlei, an expanse of water that varies from several hundred meters wide to a stone’s throw across as it meanders down to the sea. While it used to be dry at this time of year in the Cape’s rainless summers, this no longer happens as it is fed continuously with treated effluent from the nearby sewage works.
Fire approaching built up area
            On the mountain side of the vlei going up to Kommetjie Road there are various up-market housing developments at the one end and at the other there is a light industrial zone following by the heavily populated black township of Masiphumelele with its numerous shack settlements and low cost housing.

             It was no place to be playing with fire.
            The wetlands are controlled by TMNP a division of South African National Parks (SANParks) and the built up areas come under the jurisdiction of the Cape Town City Council. 
          So it would seem that the City had no option other than to go along with the decision of the TMNP boffins to just let it burn.
          Day and night it blazed away with the authorities apparently unaware that people living in the area were scared to death, having sleepless nights with their windows glowing red. Many of them would have seen it creeping along the edge of the water and heard the ominous crackle when it got among the thick reeds beds along the vlei’s edge as it jumped the water to the side where everybody lives.
            I live a couple of streets above the vlei in the Imhoff’s Gift estate so I had a grandstand view of the fire from our upstairs bedroom as it flared up in numerous different places.  
Inside our upstairs bedroom even though we were quite
a distance from the fires.
            With a near hurricane blowing it could have gone anywhere while the master minds of this fiasco were no doubt sleeping peacefully nowhere near a fire.
            In an email Philip Prins TMNP’s Fire Manager explained the bizarre thinking behind what was very nearly a serious disaster. “After consulting with Park Management, ecologists and the City of Cape Town it was decided to allow the fire to slowly back burn into the wind. No threat to lives or property was established at the time and SANParks and Cape Town officials monitored it to ensure it did not threaten any lives or homes.”
            It seems that Prins was very ill informed because that’s exactly what it did do.
            On the night of Day 3 Tuesday 14 February it really got going among the reeds in front of Imhoff’s Gift estate. Franko Maritz and his family could see the flames frighteningly close to their waterside home on the one edge of the estate next to the industrial park. At 8 pm they called the City Fire Department only to be told they didn’t have the resources to deal with it but were monitoring the fire. Four agonising hours later a fire engine arrived just in time to put out what was burning just 50 meters or so in front of their property.
Burnt out reeds close to the Maritz home
Tinder-dry grass and reeds in front of the homes
            It was a very close call because if the fire had gone any further it would have been into the very dry grass and other reeds that are in front of all the properties along the side of the water. At the other end of the estate it was just as scary.
           Prins went on to say: “On Wednesday 15th the wind switched direction and unfortunately due to a temperature inversion the smoke was trapped until it lifted by midday. The helicopters were called in immediately to prevent the fire from reaching the urban boundary near Imhoff’s Gift.”
            This had already happened more than 12 hours before but the helicopters couldn’t take off in the dark or fly through the smoke. However the fire had by no means been put out by the end of that day.
            That’s what happens when you play with fire.
            He added that “around Imhoff there was a very dense thicket of vegetation on very soft sand which makes it extremely difficult for wildfire fighters to access the area with their equipment and remain safe, making fire fighting extremely dangerous in this area.”
            That was another very good reason why his department should not have been playing with fire there.
            On Thurs 16 February a helicopter continued to water bomb the area, but by this time it had 20 or 30 separate fires spread over a wide area to put out. And inexplicably instead of taking water from the vlei it flew several kilometres a time to fetch it from the sea.

            At something like R30 000 an hour this just put up the helicopter costs considerable.
            When I asked Prins why sea water was used as I always thought this was bad for the soil he gave me this very strange answer: “TMNP is very aware of the water crisis in Cape Town and is trying to minimise the use of any municipal water to fight fires, as a result the helicopters were requested to use sea water rather than any fresh water sources which could deplete water reserves.”
First day of helicopter bombing
Fires were still going strong after the helicopter's first day
in the air
            Since when do you have “fresh” water in a vlei fed by treated effluent that often becomes very toxic because of the algae that grows in it? If anybody should have known this it should have been Philip Prins the Parks Department’s fire chief.
            In the past helicopters have often taken water from it to put out fires, so it was odd to say the least that this was not done on this occasion.
          At a rough estimate the helicopter costs were R300 000. This would have been a lot less if one had been used on the Sunday when the fire first started and would have been so much easier to put out.
          One has to face the fact that this was an irresponsible bungle that could so easily have resulted in the loss of lives and homes.
If cigarette manufacturers have to give this warning
shouldn't the Parks Department have to give a similar one
          As the advertisement for Nandos flame grilled peri-peri chicken restaurants tells us: “25 years and still playing with fire.”It might be fine for Nando’s but the Parks Department showed on the Noordhoek wetlands that it is not a game it should be playing.  
It’s just too dangerous.
Jon, who wonders if the Park’s experts realise that it’s not only the flames themselves that can affect people lives but the smoke as well, not to mention the powdery ash that is blown about afterwards.
This could be what Cape Town's like soon if arsonists
       and the Parks Department go on playing with fire
P.S. Undeterred the Park has just announced it plans to play with fire once again near Cape Point; at Black Hill from Sun Valley to Glencairn; on Roodeberg in the Capri Village area; off Orphen Road, Tokai and at Constantia Nek by starting its own “controlled burns” in March and April. But don’t worry these will be “supervised strictly by TMNP” – like the one in the Noordhoek wetlands presumably.

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