16/05/2021

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Cape Town fire “contained” as firefighters battle windy conditions

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A blaze advanced along South Africa’s iconic Table Mountain toward central Cape Town on Monday after ravaging university buildings, while firefighters battled strong winds in their efforts to control it and officials evacuated residential areas.

The fire broke out Sunday morning in the foothills of the mountain and spread to the University of Cape Town (UCT), destroying buildings and part of a library housing a unique collection of African archives, while causing students to flee.

The blaze had been largely contained on Monday, but firefighters were still battling to control it.

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato said efforts were currently focused on the mountain above the Vredehoek suburb, with residents being evacuated “as a precautionary measure”.

“Strong winds are placing pressure on firefighting staff as it shifts the direction of the fire,” Plato told reporters.

Aerial firefighting support has been forced to remain aground due to the wind.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, with one suspect taken into custody overnight, city official safety chief JP Smith said.

Flames have already destroyed the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant, private homes and historical structures such as the 18th century Mostert’s Hill windmill.

“It is not only the historic buildings themselves that have been lost, but their contents and collections,” said the Cape Town Heritage trust in a statement written from an office “enveloped in a pall of smoke”.

At least three UCT buildings have suffered major damage, including the African studies section of the library — named after South African businessman and benefactor John William Jagger — and its parquet-floored reading room.

“Some of our valuable collections have been lost,” wrote the head of UCT Libraries Ujala Satgoor in a Facebook post, adding that a full assessment of the damage had yet to be carried out.

Photos accompanying the post showed flames and smoke billowing from the roof and windows of the 1930s column-lined building.

No casualties have been reported so far apart from four firefighters who have been injured.

– ‘Inspiring’ place lost –

Thick smoke hovered over a deserted UCT campus on Monday, blocked off to students and staff.

One student, 20-year-old Kosmas Joannou, walked over from his nearby home to gauge the situation.

Dozens of terrified students had fled their dormitories on foot the previous day, spilling out along the main road.

“It was just horrible,” Joannou told AFP.

The sky “was orange, there was ash everywhere and everyone was screaming. It was chaos.”

Joannou, a student in business studies, added: “All the history that was lost in the library, that destroys me.”

Hundreds of students housed closer to the blaze have been moved to temporary accommodation, with donors sending food and other essentials.

“All my readings are there,” said social sciences student Mpho Mogale, 19, evacuated to a hotel with only the t-shirt, trousers and flip-flops he was wearing.

“I have assignments to submit,” he worried, biting into a slice of toast.

“I don’t know how we are going to work,” he added. “Since all the library is burnt… I don’t know how we are going to read.”

Anthropology researcher Jess Auerback, who graduated from UCT in 2008, remembered the Jagger library as “one of the most inspiring places on campus”.

“It was a place where as an African undergrad you could go and see the magnitude of the richness and knowledge (from the continent),” she told AFP via telephone.