Fire Drills for Urban Edges

Private Property South Africa
Anna-Marie Smith

Property owners on urban fringes share an acute awareness of fire safety – and more so those in Western Cape, where black south-easter winds are notorious for bringing cooling breezes and blazing fires.

Most large scale, uncontrolled fires that ravage the Western Cape Peninsula occur during hot summer periods when temperatures often reach the upper 30s.

As gale-force winds and low rainfall patterns describe the prevailing summer weather conditions in the Cape Peninsula, residents and visitors are at greater risk of being exposed to fires. However, the City of Cape Town’s Fire Department urges that sudden changes in wind direction occur during all seasons, and should not be ignored as the major cause of year-round runaway fires.

Many Cape Peninsula property owners, and newcomers in search of a property to buy, favour houses built in elevated positions, with panoramic mountain- and sea-views. Some of these structures – which facilitates one of SA’s most desirable outdoor lifestyles – are built on high mountain slopes. Prime examples are suburbs within, or close to the Table Mountain National Park, which covers a large geographical area, stretching from the City of Cape Town through to Cape Point.

Uncontrolled alien vegetation is one of the most common causes for increased fire risks, such as at vacant properties owned by the South African Navy, in the high risk mountainside areas of Glencairn, and at Welcome Glen along the False Bay Coast of Simonstown. Neighbourhood associations here perform voluntary fire prevention and control duties, which include fire breaks along the backs and sides of mountain-side houses. Property owners here maintain the upkeep of back burns in their gardens, while the re-introduction of slow-burning Fynbos vegetation is an ongoing project.

Increased tourist and visitor numbers during summer heighten fire risks in nature reserves and forests, especially close to the foothills of the Table Mountain precinct of Devil’s Peak and Signal Hill. Residents in and around Higgovale, Tamboerskloof, Oranjezicht and Fresnaye, say that fire drills and regular, controlled burns are as part of everyday life as monthly premiums for comprehensive building insurance.

Public picnic and braai areas in mountain reserves which are busier during holiday periods, become high risk areas in summer. The City of Cape Town’s Fire Department says statistics show that flicked cigarette butts and sparks from braai fires are major causes of rapidly-moving fires.

Recreational areas in and around the Southern Suburbs are located in the forests of Newlands, Cecilia, and Tokai, close to Kirstenbosch, Bishopscourt and Constantia, as well as near to Silvermine Reserve near Noordhoek. The city traditionally announces a no-fire period during peak holiday seasons, which has reduced the number of fires seen here in summer.

In the Boland region, devastating fires which occurred in the Jonkershoek Valley around Stellenbosch and Somerset West in 2009 resulted in the Cape Winelands Fire Department establishing a dedicated fire station to serve this region. Residents close to the Liemietberg, Kogleberg and Hottentots Holland nature reserves have since seen increased assistance from Cape Town’s Volunteer Wild Life Services.

Lightning, as a natural cause of unexpected fires as opposed to human negligence, has proved the dedicated and efficient management services of local fire fighting organisations in outlying areas. A recent fire in Clanwilliam that was sparked by a lightning strike necessitated the speedy evacuation of 30 guests from a luxury guest lodge. Western Cape disaster management and fire services reacted swiftly and deployed seven aircraft to battle the blaze for hours and although some structures were razed, the lodge was saved.

Some Cape property owners say that complacency may set in despite living in high risk areas for years.

However, after my own experiences of several devastating fires close to home at the top of Elsies Peak in Glencairn Heights, no number of fire drills will ever be too much for this family.

For fire safety tips on urban fringes, go to:

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