By SUE MACLENNAN AND GEMMA RITCHIE
Makana fire fighters supported by two teams from the Diocesan School for girls, Rhodes University Campus Protection Unit and students halted a runaway veld fire on three fronts in Makhanda (Grahamstown) last night, preventing catastrophe. Students were evacuated from residences adjacent to the western commonage and all emergency services were on high alert as an electrical short on a powerline sparked a fire that strong winds quickly blew towards the Rhodes campus and residential areas on the city’s edge.
In search of the source of the smoke coming across the western commonage shortly after 3pm on Tuesday 23 July, Grocott’s Mail found staff from Rayner Agencies in the Industrial Area damping down hots spots from the fire’s starting point. A witness said an overhead powerline next to the business had started sparking and set the grass underneath it on fire. Pieces of burning grass had been blown across the road to the commonage and caught alight.
With winds of up to 48km/h recorded yesterday, the fire tore across the front of their premises, directly eastwards towards Rhodes University. The old Power Station and the SPCA had not been under threat.
As the wind buffeted, the fire spread simultaneously in three directions: towards the campus’s upper residences, the University’s Prospect Field sport facilities and the residential areas of West Hill and Hill 60. Rhodes students and management watched anxiously from behind residences at the upper end of the campus as the fire approached across the valley.
At 4.30pm, Rhodes University’s Campus Protection Unit gave the instruction for students in residences on the west side of upper Prince Alfred Street to be evacuated. Students stood huddled outside the residences clutching blankets and laptops, waiting to be redirected. By 9pm the University’s Residence Operations Manager Craig Langson later confirmed that all the students had been given matresses and bedding and had been accommodated in other residences. Alternative meal arrangements had also been made for them. The University’s senior management met late last night to plan for the rest of the night and the following day.
A power outage around 8.30pm put the entire campus in darkness for a period; however, power was restored.
Students watched anxiously as the fire rapidly approached across the valley.
A team from DSG led by Steve Emslie headed up the dirt road towards the Rhodes Research Station to head off the fire at its top end.
As it raced alongside the river bed at the lower end, heading for a row of bluegums at Prospect Field, it also jumped across towards Nelson Mandela Hall and Guy Butler residences. Clumps of bamboo reeds less than 100 metres from Nelson Mandela Hall exploded in flames and the top of a tall tree ignited. Rhodes wardens and CPU staff held off the fire with hosepipes and fire extinguishers from the residences until Makana’s stretched fire-fighting teams came to their aid.
Makana Fire Services supported by Rhodes University with its water tanker, two DSG skid units and St Andrew’s College’s tractor and water trailer, along with staff from all the institutions, tackled the fire on three fronts and by 9pm Fire Chief William Welkom confirmed the fire was under control.
“Just a lot of hot spots, tree stumps burning,” he reported. A team monitored the area overnight and on Wednesday for possible flare-ups as strong winds continued to blow on Wednesday and stumps continued to smoulder in the burnout area.
This morning, sections of the hillside were still smouldering and low flames could be seen in one or two areas.
Students had been allowed back into their residences. Three students were treated for smoke inhalation last night and an ambulance was on standby for students who might experience breathing difficulties in the thick smoke.
In a statement today, Makana confirmed that there was no damage reported. “All properties within the affected area were protected from the fire,” spokesperson Yoliswa Ramokolo said.
Continued power outages in the Industrial Area, Stones Hill and Hill 60 since yesterday were due to strong winds.
“The team is currently attending to the areas,” Ramokolo said.
Two students from Guy Butler and Ruth First residences said they had been aware there might be a problem when they saw smoke on the hill behind their residences.
A first year from Ruth First said she had smelled smoke when she returned from her tutorial on Tuesday afternoon. When the fire alarm rang a few hours later, she said she knew it was not a drill. The smoke coming off the hill, she said, had aggravated a fellow students asthma who was helped immediately by university staff.
“The experience was uncomfortable,” said Reggie Goba, a Drama and Psychology major in his final year. He said he had to counsel himself over the fact that he was moving from the safe space of his room to a different space in a common room. He was able to, however, get a lift home as he lived in the area and he returned to the Guy Butler residence early on Wednesday morning when the university deemed it safe to return.
Rhodes parent Claire du Toit told Grocott’s Mail that she was grateful for the fast response of the University and the evacuation of the students. “I think it makes a difference when your town doesn’t panic,” Du Toit said.
- Additional reporting from Gemma Ritchie