The March fire on the Cape mountains burned for a week, destroyed thousands of hectares of flora and much fauna, and cost the life of a helicopter pilot. We’d been through this before in 2000, but then were newcomers to the Cape and didn’t realise the extent or the implications of fires such as this. Later that first winter, reality set in when the mud from the mountain gave in to the winds and torrential rain and came bucketing down the slope, taking away whatever was in its path.
This was a week of mixed emotions. To see our beloved mountain burning away, helicopters doing their best, smoke and ash causing coughs and dirty washing – all this was dramatic and at night made for spectacular scenes. Community spirit came to the fore, and exhausted firefighters were reinvigorated and rehydrated by the mountains of food and drink donated. Disaster management swung into action and diverted what was needed to the action points.
As a photographer, I must admit to finding all this very exciting – and to a feeling of extreme guilt as well, given that houses were razed and people left with nothing. But seeing that the guilt resolved nothing, like many others I was out there with my camera, recording the drama and in a strange sort of way, the beauty.
Fire in the Cape is very necessary for the rebirth and regeneration of our special fynbos, the endemic flora that is unique to this part of the world. Every 15 years or so, whatever the cause, flames leap high on the mountains and the world seems blackened and beyond recovery. But drive up Silvermine mountain, for instance, a couple of weeks later, and a flash of orange will catch your eye – a mountain lily showing its face through the black. A little later, swathes of green start showing, and the cycle starts again, plants binding the soil before the winter storms.
A tribute to the City of Cape Town, whose forward planning has resulted in sandbags all along major roads where mudslides might happen, advice to potentially affected home owners, mesh “curtains” on the mountains to catch run-off. Well do I remember the mudslides of 2000 when the Fish Hoek mountainside came down through the houses on the hillside – owners opened their back and front doors and let the slush run through.
Just when we thought the blaze was under control, a lightning strike at Cape Point started yet another inferno, in which sadly, one of the amazing helicopter pilots lost his life. Nature has a way of making us realise how small we really are in the general scheme of things, no matter how clever we think we are. Much as the fynbos needs the fire, I hope that it’s another 15-odd years before we see the mountains ablaze again.
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