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Table Mountain inferno—SANParks to blame?

By April 21, 2021Editorial

Caption: The remains of the University of Cape Town’s 200-year-old Jagger Library, gutted in the Table Mountain fire. The damage is still being assessed but parts of the 65,000-volume-strong African Studies collection and the entire African film archive were destroyed. Image: Ashraf Hendricks / GroundUp


Without fear of contradiction, I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world—Cape Town at the southernmost (well almost) point of the African continent. The city’s enviable status is not dependent on historic buildings, stunning beaches, and vineyards (mind you, it has all of those in spades) but rather its setting. For the inner suburbs drape like a leafy necklace around Table Mountain, its immediate cohorts of Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, and a narrow craggy spine that extends the length of a peninsula that finally tumbles into the sea at Cape Point.

The mountain is not very tall—at Maclear’s Beacon, its highest point, the massif stands 3,558 feet (1,084.6 meters) above sea level. But, in many places, it rises almost sheer from the ocean to loom over the surrounding landscape as it has done for some 540 million years since massive geological forces thrust sedimentary sandstone upwards on a base of shale and granite. Gray, often hazy and somewhat forbidding during much of the day, in the early morning and in the evening, the sun’s slanting rays momentarily soften the crags in washes of orangey-gold and pink.

This Sunday started as yet another calm, perfect autumn day in Cape Town, cool but with the promise of a hot day to follow. It didn’t last long.

“Nothing seemed amiss when I started my trail run,” said Lisette Lombard. “When I got to the King’s Blockhouse, I looked down and noticed a small plume of smoke coming from the direction near Rhodes Memorial … “When I looked down five minutes later, I noticed it was spreading very quickly. I started running down … I heard two explosions. I then saw the flames in front of me, that’s when I knew I was in trouble.” Lombard managed to get away from the smoke and flames, scared but unharmed. “The reality is that I was lucky to get to safety quickly, but I completely underestimated how quickly the fire was spreading, and it was almost too late when I realized how deeply in trouble I was.”

Lombard wasn’t alone. At that time, on a weekend morning, hundreds of hikers, bikers, and trail runners would have been enjoying themselves somewhere on the hundreds of tracks and trails ranging from coastal strolls to strenuous summit routes. Fortunately, all of them got down without serious injury, a miracle given the speed of the fire, which seems to have started around 8 am on the tinder-dry grassy northeastern slopes of Devil’s peak. (Here’s a Google Maps link for those unfamiliar with the geography of the Table Mountain range). 

Fires love to move uphill, and with a gentle northwesterly breeze, this one needed no encouragement. Within no more than an hour, it had raged up the mountain, engulfed and destroyed the restaurant at Rhodes Memorial, and was licking at the fringe of the University of Cape Town (UCT) perched high on the mountain like some Tuscan hill town. 

A little while later, the awful news spread through social media and local radio stations that the fire had jumped into the campus itself and that the reading room of the university’s main library had been gutted and priceless manuscripts lost. The extent of damage is still being assessed, but the library houses the 65,000-volume-strong African Studies and the African Film collections. Fortunately, fire shutters to protect the library’s most precious assets had been activated, and the fire did not spread to other parts of the library. 

By late afternoon the fire on the eastern slopes of Devil’s was under control, but in the evening, the wind had changed and was blowing hard from the southeast. Overnight and with renewed energy the fire moved to the northern slopes and threatened the upper reaches of the city below the iconic front face of Table Mountain. The fire is now more or less under control, but 48 hours after Sunday’s start, flareups continue, and it seems that it will still be some while before it is safe for airborne and land-based fire crews to stand down.

Once again, firefighters have risked their lives to save the mountain and people. And once again, the citizens of Cape Town have shown their appreciation towards these brave men and women. Within minutes of the fire breaking out, gifts and donations of water, food, and medication were flooding in, charities had stepped up, and social media was alive with tributes of praise and gratitude. Make no mistake, our firefighters deserve every accolade and pedestal they are put on. Some have worked non-stop day and night. And some have landed in hospital from smoke inhalation, damage to their eyes, and other injuries. 

However, increasingly questions are being asked. Not of the firefighters themselves, but those responsible for fire management in and around the city. Massive damage has been inflicted on the mountain, irreplaceable property has been destroyed and it was sheer luck that human tragedy wasn’t added to the tally.

Cape Town and the mountain are no strangers to fire, as every year blazes flare up throughout the fire-prone dry summer months. Many are soon doused, but every few years or so, things get out of hand, and large areas of the mountain range are lost to the flames. The fires are not necessarily bad for the nature they consume. In fact, they are very much part of the local vegetation’s life cycle.

While this may seem counter-intuitive, the ecosystem of much of the Western Cape, along the southern coastal plains and mountains, and into the Eastern Cape is fire-adapted. Known as fynbos (roughly pronounced “fain-borce” in English), this extremely diverse vegetation type is found only at the southern tip of Africa. The proteas are, perhaps, its most familiar representatives, but the Cape Floral Kingdom, of which fynbos is a major component, has the highest known concentration of plant types anywhere in the world. It holds an astonishing 9,600 species, three times more than its nearest rival, the rain forests of the Amazon Basin. Furthermore, the Cape Floral Kingdom holds more than half the number of species found in the whole of the U.S.A., an area 100 times bigger. Table Mountain alone has more species than all of the United Kingdom. 

The relationship between fire and fynbos is a critical one. If burns happen too frequently, plants don’t reach reproductive maturity and eventually, species will be lost. But if they don’t happen often enough, the system becomes moribund, and species will also be lost. The “goldilocks” period for fynbos is a period of between 12 and 18 years. Given its proximity to human settlement and the concomitant fire risk that results from that, effective management regimes in the fynbos region are of huge importance.

In fact, so important is the management of fire that a detailed, science-based fire management plan was drawn up way back in 2004 for SANParks, the body charged with the care and maintenance of the Table Mountain National Park. One of the integral aspects of the plan is that at the end of every fire season, which runs roughly from November through to April, a meeting should be convened between all relevant authorities to strategize for the next season. A detailed “veld fire” map should be produced for this meeting, reflecting fuel conditions throughout the park. Done thoroughly, this would clearly show up particularly high-risk areas, suggesting a program to eliminate or at least mitigate the risk.

It is hard to believe that this was done ahead of this year’s fire season, for there is little doubt that the vegetation on the western side of UCT has been neglected for some time. One of the main fire management principles is removing alien vegetation, especially trees such as pines that burn furiously and in high winds can send embers flying well ahead of the fire line. All along the road above UCT and leading to Rhodes Memorial, patches of alien vegetation were not cleared, and on Sunday, the worst scenario played out. Also, there are allegations that fire-fighting systems in the area were not functional or poorly maintained. Why were these maintenance procedures not carried out?

In a 2019 article in The Conversation, scientists warned of the risk of infestations of alien trees, the encroachment of the city ever higher up the mountain, and the failure to maintain the desired fire regime. This has led to a “dangerous build-up of vegetation – fuel loads – in some places,” the authors wrote.

SANParks maintains that all its firebreaks were in place ahead of Sunday’s inferno, but support for the organization and its management of this World Heritage Site is wearing thin. Citizens are already fed-up that revenue from the park is being siphoned off to support other SANParks properties. There is also dissatisfaction with how the ever-present crime threat is being handled—criminals who regularly prey on people legitimately using the mountain as a prime recreation facility seem to range around the mountain with impunity. And now, SANParks also face severe criticism for their apparent failure to manage the conservation of this astonishingly rich area.

An internal inquiry into these matters simply won’t do. The Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, within whose portfolio SANParks falls, must appoint an independent examination into this fiasco. Anything else simply won’t do. But will she do it? I doubt it, and she will probably allow the usual course of events to take place—find some hapless individual living rough on the mountain slopes, bully him or her into confession, and sweep the rest under the carpet.

PS. UCT also needs to face up to its responsibility for managing the fire threat to its property. The area immediately above the academic buildings is a thick forest with no apparent fire break between it and the higher slopes. Also, had the routine cleaning of leaf-clogged gutters been carried out? If not, it amounts to criminal negligence, for these litter-choked conduits would have simply been tinder for any falling embers.