JOHANNESBURG – Cape Town firefighters were battling a wildfire on Monday that engulfed the slopes of the city’s famous Table Mountain and destroyed parts of the University of Cape Town’s archival library.
Helicopters threw water over the area in an attempt to contain the blaze, which started on Sunday and was likely caused by an abandoned blaze, South African national park officials said. But as the wind intensified overnight and fanned the flames, the fire spread to neighborhoods at the foot of the mountain and forced some homes to be evacuated on Monday morning.
Anton Bredell, Minister for Environmental Affairs and Development Planning for the Western Cape Region, said in a report, “Wind speed is expected to increase during the day, which could impact the deployment of aerial firefighting.”
“Helicopters cannot fly if the wind is too strong and the visibility too bad, but the situation will be fully assessed,” he added. “It will be a very difficult day.”
Police arrested a man in his 30s on Sunday evening in connection with new fires that broke out on Table Mountain as the wildfire raged, according to Jean-Pierre Smith, a Cape Town councilor who sits on the mayor’s safety and security committee.
The wildfire started around 9 a.m. Sunday on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, one of the rugged ridges that form part of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain backdrop. Fanned by gusts of wind, the fire engulfed and destroyed a hillside restaurant before descending on the college campus, which is largely built on the slopes of the mountain.
Several buildings, including a historic mill and the school library, which houses important archives and book collections, were quickly set on fire and waves of thick white smoke swept through the city. So far, no deaths have been reported, but five firefighters have been injured, officials said.
About 4,000 students were evacuated from university residences on Sunday, according to Nombuso Shabalala, a spokeswoman for the university. The university announced on Sunday that it would suspend its activities at least until Tuesday.
Videos on social media showed dozens of students, some clinging to small bags, rushing from the residence buildings as the blaze engulfed the nearby hill. Busisiwe Mtsweni, an undergraduate finance and accounting student, was on the university’s upper campus around noon when “everyone got into a panic,” she said on a phone call.
Sparks from the mountain started smaller fires among the buildings and waves of smoke made it difficult to breathe, she said. When Ms Mtsweni and her friends rushed to their residence to collect their belongings, they came across a student suffering from what appeared to be an asthma attack and carried her away, coughing, away from the smoky part of the campus, she added. . Ms. Mtsweni was then evacuated by bus and spent the night in a hotel.
Sunday evening, a reading room of the special collections of the university library had been devastated by the fire, according to university officials. The reading room housed parts of the university’s African Studies collection – which includes works on Africa and South Africa printed before 1925, hard-to-find volumes in European and African languages, and ‘other rare books – as well as an archive of precious films, according to Niklas Zimmer, library director at the university.
âSome of our valuable collections have been lost, but a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe,â said Ujala Satgoor, executive director of University of Cape Town Libraries. in a report.
While the university had recently started a huge effort to digitize the school’s collections, only a “very thin” part of the special collections archives had been transferred due to the enormous volume of material and the frigid pace of the work. said Zimmer, who led the program. A single microfilm firm, Zimmer explained, could take âa lifetime of workâ to process.
University officials said they hoped most of the archives – which are housed in two basements below the library and protected by a system of fire doors – might have been spared. But on Monday, as academics and librarians waited to hear the extent of the damage, many raised the possibility that the basement was flooded during the firefighting effort.
âVery unique things are probably gone,â said Sibusiso Nkomo, who holds a doctorate in history. student member of an interdisciplinary institution archival research unit on the campus.
âWe have lost a precious story that tells us where we came from,â he added, noting that the mood of his colleagues was âtraumatized and devastatedâ.
The wildfire is the latest in a series of devastating fires that have swept through the Western Cape Province of South Africa in recent years. In 2015, fires ravaged the outskirts of Cape Town for four days, destroying around 15,000 acres of land. Two years later, another wildfire ravaged a coastal town in the province, Knysna, killing at least four people and forcing around 10,000 to evacuate their homes.
The massive forest fires were fueled by a combustible mixture of fire-prone vegetation native to southern Africa – known as fynbos – and especially flammable tree species, such as gum trees and pines, which the settlers imported to the Western Cape and contributing to the accidental spread of the fires.
To avoid uncontrollable wildfires, many conservationists have warned that national park officials must conduct more frequent prescribed burns of fynbos or intentionally start fires in areas where excess vegetation should be removed. But in Cape Town, where the outskirts of the city have spanned the mountain foothills, prescribed burns are particularly difficult and park officials have faced resistance from residents who feared their homes could be accidentally destroyed.
âIf it’s not burning, all the vegetation is right there, and it’s only a matter of time,â said Dr Alanna Rebelo, postdoctoral researcher specializing in ecology at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. “We’ve had this huge bonfire that’s just waiting to happen.”