Student tells of UCT fire terror
TA’RIQ Mohabir, of Pietermaritzburg, had just settled in at a student residence at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Wednesday when, within just four days, a wildfire ripped through the area.
“We were in our residence when we saw thick clouds of smoke to the point that we felt we could not breathe. It was so hot. It felt like heaters were on in our rooms. Outside was just as hot,” said Mohabir.
The wildfire started on Sunday morning at Rhodes Memorial. It later spread to UCT, then towards the Devil’s Peak Estate/Vredehoek area of the Cape Town City Bowl. Mohabir, 19, a first-year student, is studying business science in actuarial science. He was based at the Glenres Campus.
“At around midday on Sunday students closer to the UCT main campus were evacuated. That was where the fire was concentrated. A few hours later, we were told to evacuate as well. It was very stressful. Students were crying and having panic attacks.
“Even locals who have experienced fires here in the past said they have not experienced something like this before. And for this to have happened after such a challenging study year during the Covid-19 pandemic is just devastating.”
He said he called a friend, who lived in Canal Walk, about 15 minutes away, where he stayed initially. He is now staying at a hotel, allocated via the university.
Mohabir said he was grateful for the steps that UCT management took to assist students.
“They have laid back a few days on work so that students can recuperate and arranged accommodation for us. Organisations like the Gift of the Givers, private companies and local residents have also been amazing. They have stepped in to help the students with food, accommodation and other needs."
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, UCT Vice-Chancellor, said yesterday the assessment of the damages and the need to clean residences and academic buildings meant the academic programme would be suspended until Friday. She said that today (Wednesday) the Department of Student Affairs would start managing the movement of students back to their residences from their emergency accommodation. The academic programme would resume on Monday.
“The faculties will each manage the lost week in terms of the curriculum and will communicate with their students about scheduled tests and assignments.”
Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service, said: “Three days since the start of the devastating Rhodes Memorial blaze, the fire has been largely contained, with fire-fighting efforts now focused on Deer Park and the Disa Park towers in Vredehoek. Crews have worked tirelessly and the wind, having died down considerably, has given them some respite. Fresh crews and seasonal firefighters will be deployed to those hot spot areas.”
According to a report on IOL. co.za, Philip Prins, the Table Mountain National Park fire manager said: “This fire is not going to take one or two days. It’s going to take much longer. Hopefully, we can get containment very soon but to extinguish the fire, to put it out completely, that’s going to take more than a week. So we will have resources available every day at the scene and just hope for the wind to die down.”
He said the wind was their biggest enemy. Thousands of people have fled their homes since Sunday.
The City of Cape Town has urged City Bowl residents, who were evacuated, not to return to their homes yet. Visitors are advised to avoid Newlands Forest, Groote Schuur Estate, Rhodes Memorial, Devil’s Peak, Tafelberg Road, Vredehoek and the Deer Park sections of the park. All recreation areas below and above Tafelberg Road remain closed until further notice.
In a statement on the City of Cape Town’s Facebook page, Dan Plato, the executive mayor, said there was major damage to three UCT buildings, the Rhodes Memorial restaurant and historical structures such as the Mostert’s Hill windmill.
He said at least two firefighters were hospitalised for burns yesterday.
JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security, confirmed the arrest of a suspect in connection with the fires.
“There is a lot of speculation currently about additional fires that were started and whether the original fire was an act of arson. This will form part of investigations, but the City can confirm that one suspect in his thirties was taken into custody in the vicinity of Devil’s Peak.”
● Anyone who would like to support the #UCTFire emergency relief fund can send financial donations to: Account name: UCT Donations Account Bank: Standard Bank of South Africa Branch code: Rondebosch Branch, 025009
Account number: 07 152 2387 Swift code: SBZAZAJJ
Include your donor name if you wish, as well as the reference for your donation, for example, Name Surname, #UCTFire.