Makana Fire Chief William Welkom thanked the Makhanda (Grahamstown) community for their support in tackling a fire on Tuesday 18 December that could have seen a dozen houses above Grey Street damaged or even destroyed, and brought back the spectre of February 2012 when a fire destroyed millions of rands worth of IT equipment and infrastructure at PJ Olivier High School.
In baking temperatures and strong winds, a fire that began opposite Makana Resort in west Makhanda (Grahamstown) on 18 December soon threatened a number of houses between Grey Street and Somerset Street, as well as PJ Olivier High School.
Anxious residents prepared for the worst as a 50km/h wind blew flames and smoke from tinder-dry, fuel-rich eucalyptus leaves and branches rapidly towards around a dozen houses clustered around the borders of the commonage. The fire was reported to Makana Emergency Services shortly after 3.30pm on Tuesday afternoon.
Up at the school, Education Department official Sizwe Betela, VGHS Principal Warren Schmidt and teacher Nadia Czederecki Schmidt were among those helping fire fighters keep the flames from the school buildings. Barely seven years ago, the school suffered millions of rands worth of damage when a fire took the same route to destroy three servers and 42 terminals in the school’s computer labs. In a social media post Principal Joubert Retief, who was out of town, expressed gratitude to the professionals and volunteers: “A HUGE thank you to Makhanda firefighters and volunteers from the community who included, staff, parents learners from PJ Olivier, Mr Betela our EDO and Mr and Mrs Schmidt from VGHS who braved the wind to help bring the fire under control.”
Meanwhile, residents whose homes border a tongue of commonage that extends from opposite Makana Resort up the hillside and eastwards above houses on Grey Street, hosed down vegetation and roofs as the fire rapidly approached. Some packed up precious belongings into their cars, ready to evacuate, and had friends and family take children and pets to safe locations in preparation for the worst. Councillors Brian Fargher and Mlindi Nhanha were on the scene, assisting with contacts and some logistics. Later Basil Mills arrived with half a dozen helpers from the Stones Hill fire fighting team, along with backpack sprayers, which they used to consolidate the fire fighters’ work.
Fire Chief William Welkom said when the crew reached Makana Resort, they found vegetation already burning strongly and spreading uphill towards PJ Olivier and nearby houses. He confirmed there were overhead electrical cables lying on the ground opposite Makana Resort and that the cause of the fire was a branch falling on to the cable and catching alight.
Welkom, who is Makana’s Assistant Director: Fire & Rescue Services, called for backup in the form of standby fire fighters and the Army Fire Service to protect nearby properties, he told Grocott’s Mail later.
“The fire spread rapidly towards Rockridge Road with a lot of smoke visible,” Welkom said. “Vehicles and crews were placed strategically and the fire was kept away from the boundaries of the affected houses.”
The fire was brought under control soon after 7pm; however several tree stumps were still burning and Welkom said the fire crews continued working throughout the night, to monitor flare-ups. The crew had continued damping down some hotspots on Wednesday 19 December 2018, Welkom said.
“No loss of life or livestock and no injuries were reported during the incident,” Welkom said.
Welkom said he was extremely grateful for the way the community had come together to assist during the incident to protect property and lives. He also thanked Makana Traffic, Makana Electricity, Hi-Tec Security, SAPS, DSG (staff and skid units), SPCA and Steers (Supply of food for the fire fighters).
PHOTOS BY STEVEN LANG AND SUE MACLENNAN