Helderberg Fire – 16 April 2011

Every year it seems to be the same, a wild fire will start when winds are at their absolute worst – and fire fighters will be left with a nearly impossible task of battling an out of control, heavily fueled fire. This year is no different it seems, today on the 16 April 2011 I was walking in the local <a href=”http://bryndekocks.com/blog/”>Helderberg Nature Reserve as I often do</a>; I left early and by 9:30am I was on the way back home when I stopped and looked back at the nature reserve only to notice a small fire in the general direction of where I had just come from 20 minutes earlier. I got home and immediately phoned the local fire fighting unit and reported the fire on the Helderberg, located in Somerset West. They told me that they were aware of the fire and that they were sending units to take care of it, a few minutes later fire engine sirens could be heard.

An hour later I decided to look out the window to see if they had put it out yet, but to my surprise it was quite the contrary – the fire was now spreading fast in the gale force south easterly winds and it looked to be a tough task from there on. About an hour or so after that the first helicopter appeared on the scene and began to try to douse the flames, though by this time there was already a long line of spectators along the nature reserve fence all trying to get in on what was happening. A woman I spoke to had said that the roads had been blocked all around the area and that local houses had their smoke alarms going off causing chaos with the armed response and emergency vehicles.

At around 12:00 a second helicopter arrived to help fight the fire and the latest I heard is that there are currently 4 choppers working on the fire as I write this. Last I looked the fire had burnt much of the western part of the mountain and while south easters were fanning to the west the fire was continuing to also move to the east, feeding off dry plants. It’s been a very warm and dry March and April for the area which isn’t going to help the cause. I heard from Gordon Richardson that the news was also reporting that two cottages within the nature reserve were damaged, though there was still a thread to houses alongside the Helderberg nature reserve in Somerset West.

The fire spread rapidly up the mountain, and while I’m a fan of natural disasters this is definitely more saddening than it is enjoyable. Having to watch the Jackal Buzzards circle over where their nests were burning, watching the crows coming out in hordes and then the beautiful local sunbirds all moving away from their homes – and these are the animals that are probably least likely to suffer from the fire. While fires on the Helderberg are common, this fire today on the 16 April 2011 is definitely larger than most.

Thoughts and thanks go out to the firemen involved in risking their own lives in battling these fires, there is no more of a hero in the community.


Update: As of 18:00 on April 16th 2011, the fire is still continuing to burn, though the south eastern parts of the Helderberg Nature Reserve appear to have been saved, this is likely due to priority fire fighting due to the proximity with the Erinvale Golf Estate. Mid-afternoon saw a strong aerial force fighting the fire which included 5 helicopters and 2 or more airplanes, along with the 19 ground crews set up along the periphery of the fire. The concentration needed by both the fire fighters and the pilots must have been immense, with 3 helicopters filling up at a time, using a single dam- the margin for error was tiny.


The fire spread rapidly towards to the west with reports of 10 houses being damaged. I have heard from a reliable source that some of these houses were those located just above Spanish Farm, up the road from Parel Vallei High School in Somerset West.


The fire was then reported to have continued with the winds and gone around the mountain towards Stellenbosch side. While the other end of the fire, located on the eastern portion of the Helderberg Nature Reserve also continued to burn. As I look outside at the mountain now, there is still smoke, though I can safely say that the mountain is looking better than it did a few hours ago, though honestly there is just too much burnt to find any positive in this. Around half of the Helderberg Nature Reserve looks to be burnt.


Update: As of 09:00 on April 17th, the fire is continuing to burn with apparent damage to another house overnight. There are currently two choppers working on the fire which has continued to move in both directions (west and east). The eastern side of the fire is primarily fairly high up on the mountain near the gorges, though the helicopters seem to be struggling to put it out there. On the western side of the fire, at least on the Somerset West side, it seems to be a lot smaller than it was yesterday, but it still looks to be burning near some of the houses.


I overheard one of the tenants of the Helderberg Nature Reserve say that the cause of the fire was a controlled burning which was controlled by and took place by Erinvale on Wednesday or Thursday. The wind on Saturday then caused the warm embers which were dormant, to ignite. The Nature Reserve is currently closed to visitors as can be expected with no ETA on when they are going to re-open. The burn scars are visible today with the fire looking like it took more than half of the nature reserve. New images are also added below.


Update: As of 19:00 on April 17th the fire is continuing to burn, though mostly on the Stellenbosch side of the mountain. I took a drive up Parel Vallei road earlier today along Spanish Farm and was able to see that the Straightway Head hotel had suffered extensive damage, media reports are confirming this saying that the Straightway Head hotel has been destroyed, though this is not the only place to have suffered damage, reading the comments below the article you will notice a story from a protea farmer who also suffered due to the fire. At sunset there were still areas burning near some Somerset West farm and residential areas on the lower to middle parts of the western side of the mountain, though the wind at higher altitude was blowing the smoke back towards Somerset West, a change from yesterdays south easter. Media reports are saying that at least 15 houses have been destroyed in the fire so far, making it the worst fire on the Helderberg in recent history.

Again I would like to express my appreciation to those involved in the containment of the fire, whether it be dedicated fire fighters, volunteers, or those involved with providing foods and beverages to the fire fighters.


Update: As of 19:00 on April 18th, while the fire has been controlled through today thanks to some light winds – SAWDIS is now reporting that a new flare up has occurred near to the Bellair Estate, which is located near the R44 as entering Somerset West from the Stellenbosch area. I have also received word from another personal source that the fire located near to Bellair is currently quite small and that it seems to be getting smaller. There are currently still numerous fire fighters on stand by, so any event should be quick to be tended to. The South African Weather Service is forecasting stronger winds on Wednesday, but looking at tomorrows wind forecast for Somerset West, tomorrow looks to be another very calm day with wind speeds under 12 km/h. I’m hoping soon there will be no more updates necessary and we can concentrate on ways on recovering that which has been lost.



Posted by / April 16, 2011 / 0 Comments
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Photographer and severe weather enthusiast. I have been tracking hurricanes since 2004 and been chasing thunderstorms since around the same time, though living in the Cape proves tough for a storm chaser. I founded Storm Chasing South Africa in late 2008. When I'm not chasing thunderstorms I'm either behind my camera or a computer.

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