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Cape Town Wildfire largely contained; Damage assessment begins

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Fire crews had largely contained a large forest fire on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town on Tuesday as the town began to grapple with damage from what officials have described as one of the worst fires in the region in years.

About 90% of the blaze had been brought under control, the Table Mountain National Park authority said, but only after firefighters again worked through the night and found themselves in a third day fighting the blazes.

These firefighters were faced with “extreme circumstances” overnight, said the organization Working on Fire, which specializes in fighting forest fires and has assisted the city’s fire department. The Table Mountain operation had now reached the “clean-up” stage, Working on Fire said.

Firefighting helicopters dropped water on areas where the fire was still smoldering and smoking on the rocky peaks of Table Mountain. South African army helicopters joined the operation to support firefighters after the helicopters were all grounded on Monday due to high winds.

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The winds had eased, but thick smoke still hovered over the city and firefighters were monitoring the outbreaks.

“Our first priority remains to completely extinguish all fire lines,” said Anton Bredell, local government official. “Then, over the next few days, firefighters will continue to mitigate affected areas and monitor outbreaks until we are 100% sure the fire is out.

“Once the fire is extinguished, the investigation into the cause of the fire will be carried out.”

Forest fires are reasonably common in the mountains and peaks around Cape Town during the hot, dry summer months and become especially dangerous and unpredictable when fueled by strong coastal winds.

They sometimes sparks from the heat and dry ground, and other times are the result of fires started by people blowing uncontrollably.

This blaze started early on Sunday and, fueled by high winds, swept down the mountain slopes towards residential areas overlooking downtown Cape Town.

Neighborhoods were evacuated while firefighters mostly kept the flames at bay and away from homes – sometimes with only a few yards to lose. About 250 firefighters were mobilized.

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In all, 11 buildings were destroyed, six firefighters were injured in the blaze and nine others were treated for respiratory problems due to smoke inhalation, city officials said.

The University of Cape Town campus was one of the first sites to be affected and appears to have suffered the most damage. Many university buildings burned down, including part of an almost 100-year-old library containing rare books and manuscripts on African studies. The university said some of these “priceless” works had been lost, but it was not yet clear how many.

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Other nearby historic buildings, including a 225-year-old windmill and a renowned restaurant and teahouse near a memorial to British colonial politician Cecil Rhodes, have also burned down.

In the tea room, half-full plates and cups rested on charred tables amid the ruins, showing how customers and staff were suddenly forced to flee. Small fires were still burning in the nearby forest.

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The South African government said a residence belonging to its Department of Public Works and Infrastructure was completely destroyed by the fire. The house was empty at the time, but family members of a national minister and two deputy ministers had to be evacuated from their neighboring homes. The blaze has also moved closer to the residence of South African Vice President David Mabuza in Cape Town, the government said.

About 600 hectares (1,482 acres) of land had burned, the Table Mountain National Park authority estimated.

Photograph: Firefighters work on the University of Cape Town campus in Cape Town on Monday, April 19, 2021. People were evacuated from neighborhoods in Cape Town as wildfire swept the slopes of the city’s famous Table Mountain . Photo credit: UKTN Photo / Jerome Delay.

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Disaster Natural disasters Forest fire

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