Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Residents tell of unstoppable wall of fire

The aftermath of the fire that ripped through St Francis Bay. Photo: Henk Kruger

Port Elizabeth - St Francis Bay residents have described how the flames of a devastating fire, which destroyed 76 homes in the holiday town on Sunday night, jumped from one property to the next.

Struan Butler, who had been in the town on business, said the biggest problem was the wind.

“The wind was blowing the thatch around… It was a fire storm,” Butler told the Cape Argus on Monday night. “I watched as the fire jumped and jumped from one house to the next.”

Authorities said the fire started at 5.30pm at the Royal Wharf developments on Sunday.

The flames were fanned by a strong westerly wind. Ten fire engines had been brought in and more were called from the Nelson Mandela Bay and Koukamma municipalities.

By midnight, the fire was half extinguished and not an immediate threat to other houses. Firefighters were sent home around 4am on Monday after the fire was extinguished.

Initial reports said more than 100 houses were destroyed, but Kouga municipality spokeswoman Laura-Leigh Randall said the figure was lower.

She said 75 buildings, including 68 houses, six flats and office premises, were destroyed or damaged.

“The cause of the fire is unknown at this stage but the police forensic unit will be investigating,” she added.

On Monday, neighbours arrived to survey what was left of their homes after the fire raged through the town turning boats, cars, homes and trees into charred ruins.

Taking pictures and shaking their heads in disbelief, groups of locals gathered to recall how they arrived on Sunday to assist and douse the flames

Residents said electricity had been down in the town for several hours as result of the fire.

Other residents complained about the fire services taking too long to respond. They also complained that authorities needed water tankers in areas with a lot of thatch roofs.

Residents said boats were used to ferry people out of the area during the evacuation along the canal on Sunday.

Residents affected were being housed at a nearby golf club. Authorities said most of the houses were not occupied at the time of the blaze.

A number of the villagers spoke of the “chaos” as well-meaning volunteers and firefighters fought side by side, sometimes getting in each other’s way, while the inferno raged in the 65km/h winds.

“It was a very rough situation, very tense, very stressful, with emotions very high, lots of people panicking and some doing silly things,” said Cape St Francis resident Craig Jarvis, who spent almost seven hours assisting rescue workers.

“The NSRI had requested any assistance that one could offer, so I helped with three houses. But no matter what we did, the flames jumped from house to house… it was just overwhelming.”

Sources in the town said of the estimated 70 to 80 houses destroyed, only around 15 to 20 had been occupied - with the remaining houses used only for holidays.

Some of the locked houses had been accessed by neighbours in an attempt to retrieve valuables, but most had been burned while still fully-furnished. Two incidents of theft were reported following the night’s chaos.

Lynn Edwards, of Calibre Security in the town, said there had been two incidents in which a free-standing fireplace and a box of cutlery and crockery had been stolen.

The Cape Argus heard a number of other allegations concerning “looting” by people who had arrived in the area, but they could not be verified and had not been reported to authorities.

Crime Spotter St Francis Bay, a community anti-crime organisation, posted the following warning: “We are expecting some looting from some of the houses.

“Anyone willing to do a few patrols in the Mayotte Circle/Arthur Lane, Beauvellon Place, Moby Dick Wharf and The Island areas later tonight would be appreciated.”

Edwards said residents and other volunteers had also taken possessions from some houses in a bid to prevent them from being destroyed, and this could explain the fact that some items were missing.

KPMG insurance analyst, Jaco van der Sandt, told the SABC that insurance claims arising from St Francis Bay could be as much as R800 million.

“If you take the example of last night’s Francis Bay fire there is 100 homes, those homes if you average them out at 4 million that’s R400 million and that’s without the contents - so you can easily find that with that last event it’s costing the insurance industry R800 million and someone needs to pay for it.”

But an insurance underwriter said it was too to early to ascertain how much damage was caused by the fire on Monday.

“It will take some days before we have a clear idea of the full impact of the fire,” Thatch Risk Acceptances managing director Natasja Blok said in a statement.

She said the damage would be a huge cost for the entire insurance industry.

Thatched homes in the area had been valued at between R1 million to R16 million.

Additional reporting by Yolisa Tswanya

- Cape Argus

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