The beginning of the year is a usually a very dry and hot season in the Western Cape. It is also a season of wildfires, which can rage for days, spread very fast and often get out of control. About two weeks ago, I was sitting in my car with my best friend and housemate, watching an enormous approaching fire creeping down the mountain towards our house.
Staring at the Flames
At first, there is pure, silent awe. You can’t help but just look at it. As it slowly creeps closer, you see trees ignite next to each other like matches stacked up next to each other. At a distance of just over a kilometre, you can hear the flames. As the fire gets closer the flames get louder. It sounds like a great mass of water: waves in the ocean, or the roar of a waterfall. At the same time, it’s distinctly punctuated with the percussive cracks of large-scale combustion.
Many fires have been raging in different areas across the Western Cape in the Cape Town, Cederberg, Overberg and Overstrand regions. Sometimes the causes are natural, and sometimes they are started deliberately. However, most of them seem to be caused by accident or negligence.
The intensity of the fires are aggravated by the fact that the entire South Africa is still in the process of experiencing one of the worst droughts ever. Due to this extreme ongoing drought these fires spread very quickly and simultaneously grow in size. This makes it very difficult to contain or extinguish them. Before the rains of June last year, Cape Town was facing the prospect of becoming the first major city in the world to completely run out of water. In the classic case of human denial when others are in crisis situations, we tend to believe that something like this won’t happen to us. It happens to other people, it surely won’t happen here. And then it does.
In moments like these, you tend to have unusual conversations. We designate a spot on a hill close to the house, and make an agreement to evacuate if the fire passes that point. As the sun sets, we discuss what we will pack. The first priority is precious pieces of paper which bureaucratically allows us to exist. In that rhetorical game of being able to take only three things to a desert island – why does no one ever say something to the extent of: “Driver’s License, Passport and Unabridged Birth Certificate”?
Then – what do we consider to be our most prized possessions? What is necessary and what is sentimental? In the end we decided on essentials more than sentimental things. We have our lives ahead of us for the accumulation of new sentimental things. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate our tendency to accumulate anything at all. What would it feel like to have to re-build everything from scratch? Where are we going to live if the house burns down?
On the first night of the fire we spent sleeping in shifts, and spending an immense amount of energy hoping the wind will not flare up. If it did, it would not be in our favour.
Loss of Communication
On the second day of the fire, it was still just under a kilometre away and seemed to have moved very slowly down the mountain through the night. We continued with our days checking in on the situation as much as possible. By the afternoon the fire had spread to the signal tower on top of the mountain. All modes of communication was shut down. When it was evening, it was estimated that if the current weather conditions remained, the fire would strike the danger zone at approximately 3 am the next morning.
It’s Go Time!
I remember dosing off quite late and waking up to the words of my friend saying: “It’s go time!”. Behind her the windows revealed the size of the blaze. The flames were everywhere. When we reached her parents house, flames bigger than the house was devouring bushes a stone’s throw away from the building.
At this point, I was gripped with the sort of fear you try your utmost best to control. The kind of fear that rises from your solar plexus and nestles in the beating of your heart. You realise the full extent of the relentless power of the flames. You understand how critical the situation is, and you feel helpless.
At the same time, you try to be as calm as possible. We rushed to the nearest point of reception to call for backup, and the community responded with incredible assistance. The mountain was smouldering, but no longer in flames after a long day of suspense and controlled back burns.
With the wind in our favour, we were immensely lucky. The whole episode was a reminder that things can completely change in a day. My heart goes out to all of those affected by wildfires, and are in the process of mourning losses and mitigating damages.
And then there was Rain!
On the third day, the valley was covered in smoke. The mountains, once abundantly green, were now scorched and black. Veracious winds caused some flare-ups here and there, and our thatched-roof house was still under the threat of stray embers. Amidst this grey and dreary scene, the clouds were gathering. And then there was rain! It was one of the most beautiful spells of rain, and it couldn’t have been timelier. It truly really felt like a blessing from the sky.