On Friday 26 April at approximately 9.30am, a serious fire started at the so called Margaret’s Viewpoint on the Brenton road, overlooking Belvidere. Plumes of smoke were clearly visible from Knysna town. Within three hours, the fire seemed to be out of control and had raced most of the way down the hill to the redundant railway line below. Half an hour after that, the flames, having already circumvented Belvidere Heights, were licking at the fences of properties in Belvidere’s Upper Duthie Drive, threatening house and hold.
Questions need to be asked. Most obviously, how did the fire start? I wonder if the Fire Department (FD) have reached a conclusion on this? There is believable speculation that the cause was a carelessly tossed away cigarette end at Margaret’s Viewpoint. If this was indeed the case, then the culprit either drove off without reporting the fire or was oblivious to the terrible damage he/she was about to inflict.
The fire destroyed the entire hillside above Belvidere, and doubtless with it, a significant number of tortoises and other wild life. Knysna weather had been unusually dry for the time of year and Friday was a very hot day. Conditions were tinder dry. Ripe for fire. The devastated, now charcoal grey hillside reveals that thoughtless people have, over a prolonged period, used Margaret’s Viewpoint as a dump for glass bottles too numerous to count. Another possible cause of the fire could have been intense sunlight reflecting upon one or more pieces of that glass. The glass needs to be cleared up and action taken (see last paragraph below) to discourage further pollution of what ought to have been a pristine fynbos environment.
The most important questions however, concern the fire crew, the time it took for them to mobilise and their decision making. They may well have been on the scene relatively soon after the fire broke out, but it was clear from observation of their attempts to extinguish the blaze, that they were seriously under resourced.
At about midday I rang the emergency number of the FD and asked if they were aware how serious the fire had become, and why helicopters had not been brought in to help deal with it. I was told that the crew on the ground had yet to make this request and the FD was awaiting their report. Half an hour later I rang again (in desperation) to advise that flames more than twenty feet high were less than thirty meters from Belvidere houses. Property was seriously at risk. Only then was I told that a helicopter was on the way. It took until well after 1.00pm (almost four hours after the start of the fire) for this to arrive.
When it did so, accompanied by a spotter fixed wing aircraft – both flying continuously through thick smoke – the pilots and their airborne teams did an excellent job. They worked tirelessly. The danger to property was averted (if by a narrow margin). The Belvidere community is most grateful.
With regard to the on-the-ground crews, an example of their under-resourcing was use of only a small water bouser and diesel driven pump to tackle the flames adjacent to houses. For this action, they worked from the south side (ie from within gardens). As far as I’m aware, a fully equipped fire engine was not deployed along the railway line itself as a front line defense against the fire’s rapid progress (though I’d be pleased and reassured to be corrected in this respect). Nevertheless, thanks are also due to the firemen who were not only on site well into the evening, but also in the early morning hours as well.
We are fortunate, by the way, that TRANSNET had just finished cutting overgrown/neglected vegetation away from the vicinity of the railway line. Had this job not been done when it had, then the fire would far more readily have leapt across the line to the adjacent houses. This then is a reminder, if one is needed, that TRANSNET must be required to undertake this work on a more regular basis.
It will take a long time, probably a couple of years or more, for the hillside to recover. Between now and then, and sooner rather than later, the Municipality should erect a notice prohibiting dumping over the edge of the viewpoint (perhaps also providing a phone number to report transgressors), and it should also point to the fire risk from discarded cigarette ends. A number of lay-bye style bins should also be permanently positioned at the viewpoint so that hopefully, even the dumbest of Knysna’s residents, and visitors, will understand their purpose.