Table Mountain fire

Historic buildings destroyed as Table Mountain National Park wildfire edges into Cape Town

Photo by Mike Hutchings for Reuters.

— 3 minute read — by Will Jones

At 8:45am on April 18th, fire crews were alerted to a rapidly spreading wildfire in the foothills of Table Mountain, South Africa’s iconic peak. An extensive period of high temperature and low humidity manufactured the perfect conditions for the fire to rip through old pine trees and debris. Devil’s Peak, part of Cape Town’s dramatic mountain backdrop, acted as the epicentre for the blaze, with high winds propelling the fire down the mountain face and towards the city.

Whilst an extreme fire danger alert was in place on the day of the blaze, the resulting smoke and wind updraft hampered aerial firefighting efforts, and crews had to wait to be deployed. This enabled the fire to encroach further towards the suburbs and by 2pm, the University of Cape Town had been evacuated. Warnings were also issued to hikers on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The national park is popular with tourists who want to experience the summit’s famous views over the coastal city.

250 firefighters tacked the blaze, and four helicopters were later deployed to drop water onto the fire. Despite their efforts, a restaurant and chapel at Rhodes Memorial were gutted. The M3 roadway was also closed as the fire traversed to the other side.

The most devastating loss occurred at the University of Cape Town, where the Jagger Library – alongside five other buildings – was destroyed by the fire. The library housed the institution’s special collections department and multiple rare books in the reading room were lost to the flames. Important materials and manuscripts relating to African Studies and tribal history were also decimated, although the university are hoping many will be preserved through their digital copies.

Firefighters worked Sunday to control a blaze at the University of Cape Town’s library, where valuable historical collections have been destroyed.  
The Jagger Library was gutted by the blaze. Photo by Nic Bothma for EPA.

Further casualties included Mostert’s Mill – the oldest working windmill in South Africa – built in 1796, and two university halls of residence. The inhabitants of the latter two buildings are being kept in a new facility, whilst other students returned to their accommodation once the fire was contained.

On April 19th, the Western Cape Premier, Alan Winde, revealed that a total of five firefighters were hospitalised – predominantly with burn injuries. The university resumed studies two days after the fire.

A 35-year-old man was arrested for arson after he was seen near a new blaze on the periphery of the main fire. This charge has now changed to a by-law violation. A mayoral committee member has revealed that the City of Cape Town have received numerous eyewitness accounts of “three people walking through the bush, with fires starting as they’re going.”