Pringle Bay wildfires: Amidst arson suspicions, community resilience mirrors fynbos – Mayor Annelie Rabie

Firefighters have been battling raging fires in multiple areas of the Western Cape. The worst hit are Pringle Bay and Betty’s Bay, where the fires prompted precautionary evacuation notices. In an interview with BizNews, Overstrand Mayor Annelie Rabie recounted how overstretched firefighting teams in the area were as they battled fires in different locations. Rabie said it was the fire season and they are usually prepared for outbreaks, but she was not ruling out arson. Rabie mentioned that the fires that started on Tuesday ignited at six different points simultaneously. This meant that the fires began 120 kilometres apart, which severely stretched their resources. In another fire three to four weeks ago, she said there were signs that the fire was lit at different points in a circle. Rabie said she did not want to pre-empt the investigation and report that will come out, but, “We were promised that the Western Cape will be made ungovernable.” What stood out, she said, was how the community and surrounding areas rallied together and how firefighting services from as far as Cape Town answered the distress call from Pringle Bay.  Thirty to forty farmers jumped in with their “bakkie sakkies” to help and work until late into the night. Regarding the source of some strife in coastal towns like Pringle Bay, the troop of 70 baboons, Rabie said, appeared to have all survived the wildfire, although some were injured. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Overstrand wildfires
  • 02:01 – The situation on the ground
  • 02:24 – Help from surrounding areas
  • 03:26 – The severity of the wildfires
  • 04:21 – Suspicions of arson
  • 05:47 – Links between the fires and the upcoming elections
  • 06:56 – The size of the affected area
  • 08:42 – Losses suffered
  • 09:45 – The firefighters
  • 11:33 – The safety of the baboons
  • 12:50 – Lessons learnt
  • 14:37 – The safety of wildlife
  • 15:49 – The resilience of the community
  • 16:38 – Will everything go back to normal
  • 17:52 – Ends

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Edited excerpts from the interview

Fires started at six different points at exactly the same time 

Obviously, it is fire season, so we are usually prepared for some of this and we learnt lessons from previous fires, but these two are problematic for me. The interesting thing is that it started on Tuesday this week at six different points at exactly the same time. So, I have a question: How did it happen that all of these happened at the same time?

With all the fires that we have, we usually have an investigation and that is what I’ve asked for in this regard as well because 120 kilometres apart with limited resources of our own to cover such big fires over such a widespread area; it just doesn’t make sense to me. Something just doesn’t gel at this time.

Not excluding arson, reward for information 

I am certainly not excluding it, but it’s because I can’t prove it at this time, it makes it very difficult for me to guess.  What I can say is that three, four weeks ago, we had an extremely big fire, not quite to the extent as the one in Pearly Beach at this time, on the R43 between Stanford and Hermanus Bay. The report that I got clearly showed that at ten different points in a circle, the fire was lit. We are offering a reward for anyone with information that would lead to the successful arrest and prosecution of someone. What was also interesting is that at the time that the fire started in Pringle Bay, as my call went through to the district municipality, fires were recorded in TWK and in Grabouw and it started at four different points around the town of Grabouw. Less than half an hour later, there was a fire in Villiersdorp. So, something just doesn’t make sense.

We were promised that the Western Cape will be made ungovernable. I prefer not to think that way, because otherwise we will be focusing on that story rather than what the issues at hand are. But, I do not think we can discount it. Last night, there was a fire in Rawsonville, a new fire in Bonnievale. It is just too obvious. We normally have around between 40 and 50 varying sizes of veld fires in the fire season, that is excluding structural fires, which happens around the clock. They are however not like the ones we are having this season and this one is just too peculiar. I don’t want to go into all kinds of theories around this. Let me wait for the report and if the report suggests that there may be foul play or anything that we need to be concerned about, I will go public on that.

Danielle Versfeld Vandenberg
Danielle Versfeld Vandenberg

The challenge of fighting fires over 120 kilometres, 800 hectares burnt down 

Geographically, we are 120 kilometres from one end to the other. In the Pringle Bay area, just over 800 hectares have burned. It is predominantly a residential area with mostly secondary housing, such as holiday homes, which obviously makes it even more difficult to deal with fires in such cases.

On the other side, the 120 kilometres on the other side near Pearly Beach, it is primarily farmland and open veld. The challenge with that specific fire is that unfortunately, there are not sufficient fire breaks on farms. Some farms are overgrown, not all of them, but in this specific instance, there are areas that are completely overgrown with rooikrans and other alien vegetation, which is very prone to fire. So, last night I was on the scene, and while we were looking at the fire in one direction, within a minute it jumped to eight different places across one of our biggest connecting roads, but deep in so I cannot get vehicles inside.

All we can do then is to do peripheral prevention of the fire spreading. But that is becoming even more problematic for us because the deeper it’s in, the thicker it is, the more difficult it is to contain and when the fire jumps, it creates other risks for us.

How Western Cape communities came to the aid of Pringle Bay

We’ve had a number of fires, but two very big ones. We’re entering day five, both on the Pringle Bay side of Overstrand and then 120 kilometres on the other side of Overstrand, close to Pearly Beach and Buffelsjags. So, our resources are spread across the two sections. We have agreements with municipalities around us, but we are being supported by the city of Cape Town, the town of George, the town of Swartland, which is completely on the other side on the West Coast. We have Cape Agulhas, we’ve got Swellendam, we have the Eden District Municipality coming all the way from Knysna.

So, we really are covered and assisted across a spectrum, not asking any questions, but coming in, assisting with water, with vehicles, with feet on the ground, with logistical support. It is just amazing how the firefighters actually get it right to look beyond and to just focus on getting the fire out. I think this is exactly what fires do. They bring people together.

In the Pringle Bay area, we’ve had four houses that were completely gutted. One of the stories around this is about one of our volunteer firefighters who, while he was fighting a fire a distance away, his own house burned down. I will never forget the devastation on his face when he realised that his house was gone.

But it’s also interesting how the community is rallying around him and assisting. So, there we lost four structures, quite big structures. We’ve had other areas where one room or one garage or one chalet was damaged. But also then the smoke damage, smoke in the houses, that smell of fire that is currently hanging in the air across my municipality is quite something different.

Penny Swift
Penny Swift

Volunteer firefighters and farmers with ‘bakkie sakkies’ all jumped in

On the Pringle Bay side, we’ve got a very good team of volunteers. They’re doing excellent work around the clock. It’s a permanent volunteer structure. On the Pearly Beach side, we also have volunteers; they’re a special breed there. Volunteer firefighting groups from different towns offered their services and that came in. 

The farmers of the Perley Beach area who volunteered, need a special mention. There was no way that we would have been able to fight the fires without them. Despite the vehicle support that we got from all the other municipalities, we would not have coped without 30 to 40 farmers, with “bakkie sakkies”. It’s a bakkie, and then it has a small little trailer at the back, that is why we call them “bakkie sakkies”. To see how they just got in there.The night before last, I was in the veld till about 11:30 with them and they didn’t go home. They didn’t moan. They just continued and said, ‘This is who we are. This is what is facing us and we’re going to do this collectively.’ It actually makes one quite emotional to see how these people got together. They don’t need to do it. They don’t need to step out, but they decided we’re in it together and together we will win this one.”

Lessons for the future, better management of alien vegetation

I think there are lessons on an operational level that we need to take forward. These will predominantly be on how we manage alien vegetation and clear the area. This is impacted by climate change, which we can never discount. In this regard, there are some areas of fynbos that need to burn regularly for the fynbos to grow.

However, some of these areas haven’t burnt in 30 years. There was an argument in that specific area that they did not want controlled burns so that we can create buffer spaces. So, I think that’s a takeaway from there. But the bigger takeaway really is the social response.

In terms of the social response, the way in which the community came together to provide food and serve, and the ratepayers’ organisations, you name it, they were there. Nobody asked a question. They’re providing three meals a day to 120 boots on the ground. They’re providing eye drops. You wouldn’t believe we go through millions of bottles of eye drops during fire season and how the pharmacies and big retailers got together. One, for example, said, ‘Here is an amount. It’s on credit for you. Buy what you need,’ and I think that really helps. That really says when the chips are down, the people of Overstrand can overcome everything as a team.

The troop of 70 Hangklip baboons survived, some are injured

The baboons make for a different kind of conversation, a very interesting one, and quite sad actually. I was particularly concerned about the Hangklip baboon troop, which is 70 strong. At one point, we could only account for 26. However, one of the volunteer groups later found the rest. As far as I’m aware, no baboons were killed in the fire, but some were injured. I need to get an update on that. Some of the baboons fled, while others came back. The fact that the volunteer groups dealing with baboons can account for all 70 at this time is very important to me.

Christoff Theunissen Photography
Christoff Theunissen Photography

*Frank Douglass is a firefighter who lost his home, vehicle and all his belongings in the fire while he was helping other people. He and his wife Marelize are the caretakers of Searfarm, a private Coastal Nature Reserve between Pringle Bay and Betty’s bay. Funds are being raised to help them and donations can be made to the family’s Capitec account, or cash donations at Coffee, On Clarence (Betty’s Bay). 

Account details:

M Douglass

CAPITEC

1417816250

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