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Min­utes be­fore Madré John­ston and her hus­band Tony burnt to death out­side their home in Eland­skraal near Knysna, she sent a fi­nal text mes­sage to her neigh­bours say­ing that she could see a “glow” ap­proach­ing. Madré was eight months preg­nant. That af­ter­noon, they would have cel­e­brated their son Michael’s third birth­day.

“Morn­ing,” she greeted her neigh­bour An­ton du Plessis by What­sApp.

“We can see a red glow ap­proach­ing from Uschi’s side, this morn­ing. Looks as if the fire is burn­ing. It’s still too dark to see the full ex­tent. Will let you know as soon as we can see.” Uschi Schultz was one of the cou­ple’s neigh­bours. Du Plessis said that about 20 min­utes later, at about 6.35am, the flames were at his house. When he had ear­lier re­ceived John­ston’s mes­sage, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. The power was off and the wind was blow­ing at storm force. He and his wife Anita fled for their lives. “My house started burn­ing. I saw Judge­ment Day. Coals of fire were rain­ing down from the heav­ens. I was ready to die. Anita grabbed our dogs, Mojo, Cola and Nika, and I grabbed my pass­port, wal­let and [med­i­cal doc­u­ments]. We just man­aged to get to the Land Rover when burn­ing trees started fall­ing down around us. We just raced through the fire,” he said.

Du Plessis said the flames were not close to the ground.

“They were car­ried by storm winds. We were wait­ing on rain from Cape Town but then it rained fire. The whole Gar­den Route is burnt down.”

He said af­ter the flames had passed over his farm he went to his neigh­bours, where he came across their corpses.

Tony and Madré were both en­gi­neers. They were found near their ve­hi­cles, prob­a­bly over­come by the flames while try­ing to flee. Tony was ly­ing on top of his wife and child. Du Plessis said his house and his life’s work had been de­stroyed.

“[Our other neigh­bours] have seven chil­dren, their house is burnt down. The work­ers’ homes – gone. The scene looks apoc­a­lyp­tic.”

Knysna’s mu­nic­i­pal man­ager, Johnny Dou­glas, said the fire depart­ment was never equipped for such an “ex­traor­di­nary fire”.

He said that for a long time, they have been in need of a tanker and high-pres­sure “spray ve­hi­cles” that can fight fires that move at 100km/h.

Dou­glas said the fire was stoked by the same winds that caused havoc on the Cape Penin­sula on Tues­day. The only dif­fer­ence was that the same winds did not bring rain, but were paired with warm berg wind con­di­tions.

Knysna’s fire chief, Clin­ton Manuel, said the town was im­per­iled by fire on two fronts and there was no way of stop­ping them. The fire from the west had also split and burnt on both sides of the Knysna la­goon.

“We tack­led it with ev­ery­thing that Knysna had. We are a small fire depart­ment and couldn’t han­dle the spread of the fire. Even if I had the fire ser­vices of the en­tire city of Cape Town, with all of its re­sources, no­body would have been able to stop this fire.”

Manuel said that at one stage, the fire was mov­ing a kilo­me­tre ev­ery 10 min­utes. And the blaze, ini­tially only in the tree­tops, was so hot that build­ings and trees 300m ahead of the in­ferno started burn­ing.

“That is why we be­gan to evac­u­ate large parts of the town; we knew we would not be able to stop it.”

Knysna mu­nic­i­pal spokesper­son Fran Kirsten said yes­ter­day that about 160 houses in the town had been de­stroyed, but a fi­nal es­ti­mate of the dam­age would only be pos­si­ble once all the fires had been ex­tin­guished.

The fires killed five peo­ple this week, in­clud­ing Knysna res­i­dent Dawie van der Ryst, who suf­fered a heart at­tack when he and his wife tried to flee their home.

Bradley Richards, a vol­un­teer fire­fighter, died as a re­sult of burn wounds he sus­tained fight­ing the blaze.

Even if I had the fire ser­vices of the en­tire city of Cape Town, with all of its re­sources, no­body would have been able to stop this fire



GUT­TED An­ton du Plessis’ house in Eland­skraal was one of the first to burn on Wed­nes­day morn­ing. He spoke of how he warned the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity and fire ser­vice of a smoul­der­ing fire in the plan­ta­tion near his house


BLAZE VIC­TIMS Madré John­ston (33) – who was eight months preg­nant – hus­band Tony (34) and son Michael (3) died in the fire


NEW START Re­lief pours in for the fire vic­tims of Knysna

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