City unites to avert fire disaster


Makana Fire and Emergency Services Manager William Welkom discusses strategy with a member of the fire fighting team from Ndlambe Thursday 12 July – among the many officials and residents who teamed up to ensure Grahamstown (Makhanda) didn’t suffer a disaster the scale of last year’s Knysna fire. Photos: Sue Maclennan

At 9.30pm on Thursday 12 July, Makana’s Fire and Emergency Services Manager William Welkom and fire fighters were driving around areas of Grahamstown (Makhanda) where the veld was still smouldering after a day of fires that threatened homes, schools and the 6SAI army base.

An all-out response by emergency services, backed up by local institutions and businesses, saved the city from a fire Thursday 12 July that in the tinder-dry conditions and hot, gusting winds could have been as devastating as the fires that destroyed more than 1000 homes on the Garden Route just over a year ago.

The fire started around 11am in bush north-west of Grahamstown’s (Makhanda’s) airport runway and tore across the tinder-dry grass alongside it, spreading quickly to the old golf course and easily jumping the road to the army base into the bush below Cradock Heights.

Among the first to take action was the Grahamstown Riding Club, who evacuated horses from their stables to open paddocks.

South African Police Services local emergency response communications soon advised Somerset Heights and Oatlands North residents to be on the alert as strong winds fanned the fire towards Settlers Hospital and houses in Queens Grove, off Constitution Street.

They and many other residents whose homes border the veld west of the city rushed home to pack belongings, ready to evacuate. Residents at one property stood outside with hoses, ready to defend their home from the flames.

Settlers Hospital was prioritised, with teams on standby there who prevented the fire from reaching the buildings. The nurses home was evacuated as a precaution.

Fire-fighting teams were on hand when the fire approached Settlers Hospital and Somerset Place retirement village.

The nurses home, on the hospital grounds’ western boundary, was evacuated for safety.

Frail care residents at Somerset Place were evacuated. Manager Ben Bezuidenhout said, “The most important thing was to ensure the safety of our frail care residents. Some are in wheelchairs, some have Alzheimer’s – so they’re in a difficult situation. But our frail care residents were never at risk because the carers knew exactly what to do: when the fire came down the hill, they immediately evacuated them on to the porch. The next step would have been to take them further down towards the road.”

It was worrying though.

“When the fire came down the hill it looked terrible,” Bezuidenhout said.

Luckily the complex maintains an extensive fire-break, an expanse of grass that is kept short.

“The fire department was on the scene and they did a magnificent job of dousing the fire,” Bezuidenhout said. “And thank goodness the wind dropped.”

Other residents were mobile, Bezuidenhout said, and would have been able to leave unassisted in their own vehicles.

Sean Haydock, who runs Blue Skies Backpackers, raised the alarm when he saw the fire approaching from the far side of the airfield, between the army base and the shooting range.

Sean Haydock, who runs the Blue Skies Backpackers at the EP Skydiving Club, said the fire had started at the far side of the airport runway around 11am. “It was in that clump of bush there,” he told Grocott’s Mail, pointing towards the area between the runway and the Army shooting range.

Haydock called the fire department and they were there in minutes, he said.

“If they hadn’t acted so quickly, I reckon these buildings would have been gone,” Haydock said.

Fire and Emergency Services Manager William Welkom was first at the scene and later described what he’d seen to Grocott’s Mail.

“I took one look at the size of the fire and the speed it was travelling towards the houses and straight away I knew we needed backup,” Welkom said. He’d immediately called the District’s fire fighting services and neighbouring Ndlambe, who sent reinforcements.

“I reckon that wind could have been as much as 55km an hour,” Welkom said.

Hi-Tec Security was among the public and private emergency services who assisted. Here Kenny Knoetze discusses strategy with a member of the Sarah Baartman fire services team.

DSG staff return from behind the Villa d’Este complex in Somerset Heights, having stopped the flames short of the boundary wall.









Along with the other emergency services – Makana Traffic, SAPS and Hi-Tec Security, – all three private schools – St Andrew’s, DSG and Kingswood – sent teams and equipment to help at various hotspots as the wind kept changing direction and new areas were under threat. Rhodes University brought their water tanker, vehicles and staff, Wessons Service Station played a crucial role clearing a path with their TLB through the bush below the Army base for emergency vehicles to approach, Crossfit’s Simon van der Merwe and teams from Amakhala Reserve were among the many who actively fought flare-ups close to people’s homes as the fire moved across the valley.

Army fire fighters concentrated on protecting the base.

Miloli Dingana and Mark Thomas of the SPCA evacuated animals from homes as the fire approached.

Mark Thomas, Miloli Dingana and Lois Marechal of the SPCA evacuated animals whose owners were away. Afterwards they drove around looking for injured or lost animals.

The wildfires that began in Knysna just over a year ago spread across the Garden Route, destroying more than 1000 homes and crippling or destroyed nearly 200 businesses.

Speaking to Grocott’s Mail late last night at a site where fire fighters were dousing a new flare-up, Welkom said he was immensely grateful for the way the community had come together to help prevent what could have been a disaster.

“I am just grateful that together we were able to protect property and lives,” Welkom said. “We will continue to monitor hotspots throughout the night, but I am confident that we have got the better of the fires now.

“There is rain predicted and I hope it comes soon.”

As we now know, it did. Accuweather predicts more rain in Grahamstown Saturday afternoon 14 July, with a cool 12C. Sunday 15 July is predicted to be still cool, with temperatures climbing through the week to a hot 26C next weekend.

Sunnyside resident Nikki Kohly around midday on Friday 13 July reported 8.9mm of rain since it started falling Thursday.

The slideshow below tells the story of a community acting together to avert disaster:


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