More than 250 firefighters in Cape Town battled a massive blaze that broke out on the slopes of the city’s Table Mountain on Sunday and spread to a university campus, severely damaging at least three buildings and forcing student residences to be evacuated.
Efforts to extinguish the flames were hampered by howling winds, with helicopters that are usually deployed to douse the flames unable to fly on Monday. Some residents of the suburbs of Vredehoek and Devil’s Peak were instructed to vacate their homes, schools in the area were shut and several streets were closed to traffic.
Several historic buildings were gutted, including a tearoom at the Rhodes Memorial on Table Mountain’s lower reaches, and Mostert’s Mill, which was built in 1796 and is the country’s oldest working windmill. A thick pall of smoke blanketed large parts of the city, restricting visibility and making it difficult to breathe
Five firefighters were injured and are receiving treatment, the Western Cape province said in a statement on Monday.
“This is the worst wildfire to have hit Cape Town in recent memory,” said James-Brent Styan, a spokesman for disaster management in the province. “We seem to be making headway but the fire is not fully under control yet. Hopefully the fire will not flare up overnight as it did on Sunday.”
The full extent of the damage will be assessed once the fire is brought under control, the city of Cape Town said in a separate statement. The cause of the blaze is being investigated and a 30-year-old man suspected of starting a secondary fire has been taken into police custody, the city said.
The University of Cape Town’s music school, Fuller Hall student residence and Jagger Library were badly damaged, and several valuable book collections and a reading room were torched. More than 4,000 students were evacuated and accommodated at hotels and private residences in the city, and all campuses will be shut on Monday and Tuesday.
The insurance industry is likely to face claims of more than 100 million rand ($7 million), although an accurate assessment has yet to be made, said Christelle Colman, a spokesperson for Old Mutual Insure.
–With assistance from Roxanne Henderson.
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