Helderberg fires – counting the cost

Photographer Andrew Hagan took this dramatic picture of the aftermath of the fire in Grabouw.

The fires which raged in the Helderberg for close to two weeks, are over. By Friday, the air had cleared of smoke, but monitoring teams remained on standby on Lourensford Estate in Somerset West, the last location where the fire defied the massive effort to extinguish it.

The losses of fynbos have been grievous – 2 000ha on Lourensford Estate and 1 800ha on Vergelegen Estate alone when the fire came over the Hottentots Holland Mountains from Grabouw, where it originally started almost three weeks ago – but the productive farm land losses are surprisingly low – approximately 30ha, including 6ha of fruit trees. Idiom Wine Estate overlooking Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, which, according to owner Alberto Bottega, lost 25% – 10 ha – of its vineyards to the fire, experienced proportionately the greatest loss.

“We expect the harvest will be less than 150 tons instead of 200 tons. We hope that only the pinotage may have smoke taint, as it was the only variety near veraison,” says Mr Bottega. “Only time will tell whether the harvest will be good enough for our label. We will wash all bunches and reduce skin contact to minimise risk.”

The question of smoke damage or smoke taint, is approached with caution, as Morgenster Wine Estate cellar master Henry Kotzé explains: “It really is too early to tell. The full impact of especially the smoke taint will only be assessed at the conclusion of malolactic fermentation. We are implementing extreme quality protocols to only get the best most pristine fruit into the cellar, so the risk of taint would be minimal. Thereafter we will have a clearer picture.”

Alien vegetation control is an on-going project on all of the major wine estates, and this fire necessitates the deployment of additional resources to eradicate the alien plant regrowth that will sprout when the rains come in the spring, but it is not all necessarily negative, as Vergelegen general manager Don Tooth explains:

“After implementing the remedial programme, we will have seriously depleted the majority of the alien seed-bank which will be great news for any future fires and recovery plans.”

But as Lourensford general manager Koos Jordaan points out, a lot of remedial work is necessary: “All the work of clearing aliens in sensitive areas over a period of seven years is gone. We are worried that the Protea families have now thrown seed too early, a 12 to 15 year fire is usually best to get maximum propagation. The problem now is that aliens re-establish quicker, so a lot of hard work lies ahead.”

But not only wine farms were affected by the fire. The main building at Bezweni Lodge near Sir Lowry’s Pass Village was razed in the early stages of the fire, one of eight structures damaged, according to a communique from City of Cape Town executive director for safety and security, Richard Bosman. “Eight structures were affected (including Bezweni Lodge), one farm dwelling was completely destroyed, and the remainder of the structures were storage or outbuildings.”

According to Mr Bosman, the estimate of known structural damage is R60 million.

A number of people had to evacuate their homes when threatened by the wind-driven flames, and although there were reports on social media of looting of evacuated homes, it seems that only one or two incidents occurred, and they were apparently opportunistic, as homeowners association chairperson of Tre Donne Estate in Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, Fran Delaney, told Bolander via email: “On the night of the fire, two opportunists were apprehended by (a security company) with an irrigation pump, extension cable and a bag containing tools. These individuals were handed over to the police and the property returned to the relevant residents.”

Allegations of arson emerged, but although it is understood that most fires are started by human agency, that does not imply arson. The City’s Richard Bosman had this to say on the matter: “The cause of the fires is not known. The fire originated outside City borders and spread into our area. The City’s special investigations unit, along with the fire and rescue service and the SAPS, investigate all possibilities in the event of a fire. No matter has been referred (to the SAPS). Investigations into the origin of a fire outside of the area, fall under the jurisdiction of Overberg District Municipality.”

Aside from people, many domestic animals had to be evacuated, and the community responded magnificently to calls for aid, which went out over social media, in particular on the Somerset West Facebook page, which was managed throughout the emergency, by page admins Ina Thiart, Claudine van Wyk, Sandy Immelman and Judith Cross. Offers of accommodation for evacuated people flooded the page within minutes of the evacuation announcements, and when the appeal was posted for horse boxes to move horses under threat, the response was immediate.

The extent of resources deployed to fight the fires was prodigious. According to Mr Bosman, 240 firefighters – various City agencies, Working on Fire, Volunteer Wildfire Services and the Fire Protection Association – were deployed, along with 12 fire tenders, 10 water tankers, two City, two provincial, and two SANDF Oryx helicopters.

Working on Fire also deployed at least two helicopters (1 200 litre capacity Bambi bucket, 20 to 40 drops per hour), and one air tractor water bomber (3 000 litre capacity, four to six drops per hour).

As the wind-driven blaze roared through the Helderberg, consuming everything in its path, all the exhausted firefighters could do was protect property, and let the fire burn itself out.There was no stopping it.

But it is the community response in support of the firefighters which drew so much approbation. Hundreds of people bought provisions – food, cool drinks, bottled water, ice, eye-drops – and delivered it to distribution points.

A joint operations command centre was established at the NG Church in Gordon Road, Somerset West, and a team of hard-working Somerset West Neighbourhood Watch members and local volunteers, led by Anne-Marie Storm Buys and Russel Meaker, churned out literally thousands of meals for the exhausted, hungry firefighters, over the almost two weeks that the fires raged.

A similar operation at the NG Church in Beach Road, Gordon’s Bay, organised by the Gordon’s Bay FireWives also produced meals around the clock for the firefighters.

Gratitude for the brave, tireless efforts of the firefighters and the air crews, and the groundswell of support from the community to keep them all nourished and watered, is perhaps best summed up by Vergelegen’s Don Tooth: “The most important lesson we’ve learned is how awesome and supportive our surrounding community is, and how competent the professional firefighters are – in short we are blessed.”