What started out as a beautiful day in St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape ended in absolute mayhem when a huge gust of wind apparently fanned the flames of a fire that started at the Royal Wharf Marina Resort last Sunday afternoon and set a nearby property alight. Although the cause is still being investigated, it is widely held that the fire started as a result of embers from a braai fire being blown onto a nearby roof. Regardless of the cause, it was the start of the worst disaster the area has ever witnessed and, by 3am the following day, 76 homes, worth hundreds of millions of rands, had been reduced to ash.
John Cooper, who owns the Chas Everitt Eastern Cape franchise and who lives in the area, posted updates and photographs of the disaster on Facebook throughout the night. He said that the wind had gusted through, seemingly from nowhere, spreading the fire at an alarming rate. “It was like something out of a disaster movie. The wind, which was blowing in a south-westerly direction, spread the fire to every house in the immediate vicinity. The majority of the homes destroyed were holiday homes, but four properties housed permanent residents.”
Although no one died in the inferno, residents could salvage very little from their gutted homes. “The response to the disaster was phenomenal,” adds Cooper. “The whole St Francis Bay community as well people from other areas of the Eastern Cape pitched in to help. St Francis Bay has one fire engine, manned by volunteers. Other fire departments stepped in to assist, as did members of the National Sea Rescue Institute. Sadly, however, the magnitude of the fire was too great and there was little anyone could do to halt the progress of the flames.”
A report by Bev Mortimer in the local online paper, The St Francis Chronicle, reflected the drama and in a heartbreaking post, pleaded for help on behalf of the NSRI. The first report, headed ‘The Canals are Burning’ noted that most of the houses on the canals had thatch roofs. The report went on to say many of the homes did not have fire hydrants and the blaze spread fast from around 4:30pm.
The full extent of the damage was revealed early on Monday morning as shocked homeowners began to take stock. Blackened walls are all that remain of what has to have been some of the finest real estate in South Africa. Homes, one of which was reported to be worth at least R15-million, had been burned to cinders. Cooper estimates that the value of the loss due to actual property damage is around the R500-million mark. However, he says that this figure excludes the contents of the homes and the jet skis and boats that were also destroyed.
Insurance assessors were on scene early on Monday morning, but replacing the homes is not the only immediate concern. Cooper says that one of the other challenges residents now face is restoring electricity and water connections. “Security is also high on the agenda as the alarms are not working and many of the intact houses are unoccupied. At this stage, I am recommending that homeowners employ guards at their homes until the electricity is reconnected.”
Cooper says his office is now working flat out to find those who have booked holidays in the town alternate accommodation before the season starts. “Many holidaymakers have indicated that they still want to come to the area in December and we have not been asked to refund any deposits for holiday accommodation as yet. We are also in the process of contacting landlords and sellers as well as our clients to advise them of the extent of the damage and inform them whether they are affected or not.”
Cooper had high praise for those who came to the village’s aid. “Our volunteer firemen, under the direction of Keith Donaldson, along with the local NSRI members, did an exceptional job in helping to fight Sunday’s blaze and get it under control without any loss of life or serious injury.
“We are proud of all of them and very grateful to Keith and his volunteers for the work they do and the sacrifices they make to help and protect this community, which doesn’t have a municipal fire or rescue service.
“They are real heroes but they don’t even have proper protective gear such as masks and boots let alone enough equipment. Berry Everitt, CEO of Chas Everitt International has donated R30 000 to the Friends of the St Francis Fire fund for them to provide better equipment and training to help and protect this community. We are asking other local businesses to contribute too, in order to keep them safe while they are unselfishly helping others.”
On another positive note, the residents have vowed to rebuild the canals and restore them to their former glory, ensuring that like a phoenix, St Francis Bay will rise from the ashes.