At the start of this week, firefighters in Cape Town, South Africa, contained a wildfire more than 24 hours after it broke out along Table Mountain. The fire is already being described as one of Cape Town’s worst blazes in recent years.
The fire began near Rhodes Memorial, spread to the Vredehoek area in City Bowl, and ended up at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Four helicopters and 250 city and volunteer firefighters worked to contain the flames through Sunday and into Monday. In the aftermath, South African National Parks estimated that 650 hectares of wildland and vegetation were destroyed across Table Mountain National Park.
Much of the park is home to fire-prone vegetation. In 2015, this vegetation contributed to a four-day wildfire that burned through 15,000 acres of land around Cape Town. In recent years, ecologists have urged national park officials to conduct more frequent prescribed burns in order to ensure flammable vegetation isn’t accumulating. However, residents who live along the foothills of Table Mountain have pushed back against prescribed burns because of the possibility of the destruction of their homes.
The fire at #uct again brings to light the question of housing and equity in #CapeTown.
Literally hundreds of thousands in the city live in shacks – no wonder you also have ppl living on the mountain. pic.twitter.com/CrsLQgAS1p
— Unequal Scenes (@UnequalScenes) April 21, 2021
As high winds and dry conditions are exacerbated by climate change and hotter temperatures, Cape Town authorities are continuing to monitor the area for flareups. Thus far, firefighters have dealt with sporadic flareups in the Deer Park area, but have scaled back their resources since the fire has been contained. Parts of the Table Mountain National Park remain closed for safety and post-fire sensitivity purposes.
In addition to land, eleven structures, including six university buildings and the historical Mostert’s Mill, were damaged or destroyed. Across social media, people took to their feeds to raise awareness of what was razed in the fire’s path. The University of Cape Town’s famous, 200-year-old library and Jagger Reading Room were some of the landmarks caught in the fire.
“Some of our valuable collections have been lost,” UCT libraries director Ujala Satgoor said in a statement. “However, a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter the building.”
One valuable collection of note is an expansive African Studies collection consisting of 65,000 volumes, 26,000 pamphlets, 3,000 African films, and 20,000 other audiovisual items. Some works were incredibly rare, while others date back as far as the 1500s.
Remember your sadness when the Notre Dame was on fire? this kind of thing happens and how often it is ignored because it's happening to non-white, non-European landmarks & structures
Now, University of Cape Town Library, which housed thousands precious documents, has been burned pic.twitter.com/w5t8wgOhBZ
— K.Diallo ☭ (@nyeusi_waasi) April 19, 2021
“An African continent, which has suffered several series of conquests, has been struggling to reconstruct its own history and particularly that which is documented,” historian and political analyst Somadoda Fikeni told TV news broadcaster Newzroom Afrika. “Therefore, any special collection that is frail, no longer available, or no longer printed very often tends to be priceless in terms of its heritage value and in terms of the knowledge project.”
While fires on Table Mountain are common, this is the first time the university was affected by flames. Residents based along the slopes of Table Mountain, including the suburb of Vredehoek, the three residential buildings of Disa Park, and 4,000 university students, were evacuated to local hotels on Monday. By Thursday, residents began returning to their homes and UCT students departed emergency accommodation sites, with temporary accommodation sites set up on-campus for those whose residence halls were deemed unsafe due to fire damage.
#UCTFire #UCTWillRiseAgain The safety of our students and staff remains paramount. As a campus we will continue to adhere to COVID-19 protocols as students are screened and booked into the various residences today. Thank you for your patience and support. pic.twitter.com/ZYckdXtz3S
— UCT (@UCT_news) April 22, 2021
Already, an outpouring of relief has begun to help firefighters and those affected, impacted, and evacuated. If you’re interested in helping, here are a few action items:
Stay indoors and encourage your friends, family, and pets to stay inside, too.
As you shelter in place, shut all windows and doors to keep any smoke out. This will protect your lungs and ensure there is breathable air.
In addition, be sure to stay informed by making sure you will be alerted if conditions worsen or if there are more needs in your community.
Consider opening up your home.
If it’s possible, provide shelter and homemade meals to those who were evacuated. Volunteering is also a way to help rebuild and respond to your community’s needs.
Water, food, energy bars, and eye drops can be donated to your local fire station. Cape Town-based nonprofits such as the Gift of the Givers Foundation, South African Red Cross Society, and the Volunteer Wildlife Service are accepting monetary donations and encouraging locals to donate blankets, clothes, and old furniture to homeless shelters and to those who have lost their homes. Animal shelters are also accepting pet beds, food, and kennels for those displaced by the fires.
With this wildfire causing insurmountable damage in Cape Town, it will be interesting to see if residents change their minds about prescribed burns. Many ecosystems benefit from controlled fires as they help to maintain the health of habitats by reducing extra vegetation and encouraging new growth.
As climate change continues to alter ecosystems, now is the time to demand action from leaders and implement strategies to protect the well-being of ourselves and the environment.
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