Fire decimates 50 farms in cathcart, eastern cape

18 August 2017

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South Africa - A combined force of 563 fire fighters and civilians fought to control an extensive wildfire that broke out in the Amahlathi Municipality in the early hours of 11 August 2017. According Louis Mostert, Amahlathi Fire and Rescue Services’ chief fire officer, the fire was initially reported to the Upper Cathcart Fire Protection Association’s (UCFPA) fire protection officer, Chris Purden. The UCFPA dispatched two of fire fighting teams to combat the fire. “By 4h00 the UCFPA realised that the fire was beyond their control,” said Chief Mostert. Fire fighters from the Amahlati Fire Department were dispatched to assist. As the fire continued to spread, fanned by moderate winds, more assistance was summoned. The governmental resources and personnel that were deployed to the fire included one heavy pumper, three medium pumpers two skid units, 23 full-time fire fighters, five volunteer fire fighters and 12 seasonal fire fighters. The various fire protection agencies involved provided one spotter aircraft, one water bomber, one helicopter bomber and scores of skid units.

Businesses in the area provided a total of five skid units, three tanker units and three light pumpers. Working on Fire Eastern Cape released 72 fire fighters and two light pumpers. The Amahlathi, King Williams Town and East London SPCAs contributed three vehicles and six staff members. In addition, 75 farmers and 450 labourers assisted in the efforts to extinguish the fire.

The fire danger rating, as issued by the Greater Stutterheim Fire Protection Association (GSFPA) was 81 red, with low relative humidity and moderate winds putting it into the extremely dangerous category. “Compounding the problem were the facts that the mountainous terrain that was burning was inaccessible, that no cellular or radio communication could be established with on scene crews and arriving crews and that the roads in the area were in very poor condition,” Mostert said.

By 6h40 a frontal attack on the fire was made to prevent it from spreading to Happy Valley Road. Volunteer fire fighters and local farmers assisted with fire control. “However, despite multiple attacks on the escaped fire, the wind blew burning corn leaves faster than we could travel and I realised that this line of attack was futile as the fire spread from corn lands into inaccessible grasslands and bushes,” Mostert said. “The fire would now have to be held further south east against the Granta Esher road.”

“I then requested extra resources as we were now dealing with a disaster fire. This was granted and Amathole District Municipality Disaster Management released a fire team from Komgha to assist.” A wet line ambush was established against a 30-metre wide fire break to prevent the fire from spreading into Thomas River Village, a popular tourist destination. Efforts by the Eastern Cape Umbrella Fire Protection to provide direct aerial support on the wet line were hampered by the extreme amount of smoke in the air. “Due to dense vegetation, no aerial support and poor on scene safety for crews, I withdrew crews from the wetline,” said Mostert. The crews moved on to refill water tanks and prepare a defence of the village. Changes in the direction of the wind made fire fighting strategies there treacherous.

By 13h35 the fire head in that area had been contained. Ground crew attacks on the flanks were being successfully conducted, thus posing little risk of fire spread. Fire crews returned to Happy Valley Road, as well as to the flanks adjacent to the N6 and R345 roads to assist with heel anchoring and defensive operations to protect livestock and multiple structures on the farm there.

By 18h30 the fire in that area had been fully contained and by 19h10 efforts from the fire section, farmers and FPA members had successfully extinguished the N6 flank from the R345 to the Thomas River Village area. “Amahlathi crews were then mobilised to assist with suppression operations on the Hoggsback flank and by 20H15, this flank was contained,” Mostert said.

Disaster relief assessment operations were implemented by Mostert and the Amahlathi SPCA the following day for the fire affected communities of Cathcart, Happy Valley and Thomas River. U Save Cathcart provided donations for those affected by the fire. “A preliminary survey confirmed that 22 cattle, 20 sheep and one buck perished as a result of the fire,” said Mostert. “Three outbuildings and six fodder sheds were also lost.” He estimated the burn area to be between 10 000 and 18 000 hectares. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The fire has been described as the worst to hit the area in many years. It affected 50 farms in Cathcart and has created serious concerns about the fate of the Eastern Cape’s economy. The loss of livestock will result in a drop in meat production that may lead to the retrenchment of farm workers. Hundreds of head of livestock that fled to safety in upper Cathcart and Thomas River are still missing.

The Upper Cathcart Farmers’ Association will meet with Agri SA Eastern Cape and other farming stakeholders today to quantify the damage. Richard Armstrong and wife Mandy of Tweedale Farm have now confirmed they lost 41 pregnant Fenfield cows valued at R615 000. The couple also lost 50 Dohne merino sheep with newborn lambs, with a combined value of R125 000.

Agri SA Eastern Cape chairman Douglas Stern has said farmers might have to let some employees go. “There are farmers who have lost everything and it would be very difficult for them to recover soon because of the drought and the first option would be to cut expenses. “Salaries and wages fall under the expenditure budget in any business so farmers might have to look at retrenching,” he said.

Tweedale Farm manager Norman Footer’s light delivery vehicle was destroyed when three outbuildings at John Day’s Millerton farm were gutted by the inferno. The farm is leased to Day by overseas-based farmer Shaun Steward. Also gutted was the building that used to house grades one to seven of the now defunct Tweedale Farm School. The building was used by Armstrong as a storeroom after the Eastern Cape department of education closed the school a decade ago. “Most devastating is the fact that this happens while we are in the grip of a drought,” said Armstrong. “We only had a little feed for the entire winter but now it is all gone. “I don’t know what I am going to feed my animals with. My friends in Bedford said they would love to keep my cattle until we get out of this situation, but they are also facing a drought that side.”

Farmers have received offers from other farmer owners in areas including Post Retief, Tarkastad and even the Free State to help them with animal feed. “We are coordinating support from farmers within our organisation. Those who still have a little grazing land left can take animals from others for grazing.”