I have taken to scanning the horizon once an hour or so. Its a new habit I have picked up. That and sniffing the air now and again. What am I looking for? Well, smoke of course. It’s one thing knowing somewhere in the back of your mind that the Western Cape is famous for fires this time of year, but quite another to find yourself in the thick of it so to speak. Friday was one of the most stressful and scary days I have experienced in some time. And so now I check regularly. I can’t help myself.
Stu went to the shops around midday, and when he got home I noticed I could smell fire, faintly, on the air. I asked him if he could smell it but he said no. This isn’t the first time we have smelt or seen smoke since moving here. Just before Christmas there was a large fire closer to Franschhoek, and then one the other side near Val de Vie. Its very nerve-racking when you can smell the smoke but don’t know where the fire is. Anyway, an hour or so later our landlady (who lives in the cottage next door) called me to say there was a biggish fire our side of the road, on the farm next-door but one. A couple of kilometres away I guess as the crow flies. Looking out of the window we could now see the smoke. Thick and dark grey, boiling at times to white, and then seeming to clear before becoming thick again. The fire department were on their way she had told me. And she advised to keep the windows closed, and an eye on it. The wind of course was howling as seems usual for this time of year, blowing towards us from the side where the fire was. Not a lot between us and where the smoke was coming from. A ridge and some very dry pine trees, one house and some veld. Not too reassuring.
We decided to pack some important bits into the car (passports, photos, granny’s carriage clock and the safe) and get the cat boxes out and ready. By now it was 5pm and the cats were pacing. For dinner of course, nothing ominous I assure you – their stomachs run like Swiss clocks. After feeding the cats I kept the bedroom doors closed, so we could round them up a bit more easily should it come to that. Stu and I took turns at the window, checking on the smoke on the hill, and watching the 2 helicopters take turns dumping water. I decided that once I could see flames it would be time to go. Quite soon after that our landlady called again to say she could see flames, and she had by now decided, after living through 2 or 3 other large fires, that this was “a bad one” and she was taking her small dogs to her sister’s so long. Shortly after that we saw a few large flames our side of the hill. But they seemed to be deliberate patches someone was setting and then putting out again, perhaps as fire-breaks to slow the fire down? A little bit later one fire truck and another smaller vehicle came to park in the field between us and the main fire. The light had now gone a funny colour as it made its way to us through smoke-filled sky. The wind continued to howl in our direction.
I kept asking Stu if it was time, time to go that is. We weren’t sure where we would head but it was starting to look like we needed to make a move. He decided to take a drive down the road and check on things, and then bring the car round to the other gate, on the far side of the house, furthest away from the approaching fire. We figured it would be easier to leave that way as that is a manual gate, and we weren’t sure if the power would stay on. We had seen Eskom checking the lines a bit earlier. I felt sick.
Stu came home and said that the fire was about a kilometre away, but was heading for a large patch of flat grassland and he felt they would soon have it under control there, in the open. It was the bit that had climbed up the ridge into the trees that worried him. But he was still of the opinion that we stay put. I then noticed the fire truck was moving off from where it had been parked next door. It seemed that things were calming down. So we decided to try and eat something. Stu lit the braai. I was trying to distract myself with something on TV when he came charging in the door yelling, “it’s right here”!
And there they were. Flames outside the fence, between us and the landlady’s cottage. Action stations. I ran to switch off the electric fence whilst he grabbed our pathetic little hose pipe and started wetting the ground around the perimeter. Next thing the fire truck was there – Winelands Firemen and volunteers from the Drakenstein Farm Watch and the Wildfire Volunteer Services calmly unravelling hoses and doing what they had been doing for hours already. The wind continued to howl and quickly spread the fire away from us (and the house) towards the overgrown, wattle filled section at the bottom of the farm. I couldn’t believe how quickly it took hold and how the sparks flew and swirled ominously in all directions. Despite the fact that our piddly stream of water was having little impact on anything I couldn’t bring myself to put the hose down. Doing something after all that stressful anticipation was better than doing nothing. The landlady called to find out what was going on as she had been unable to get back for her bigger dogs as the road was now closed. The fire had jumped the road now and was spreading towards more densely populated areas like Pearl Valley. Another fire truck arrived. The sun was almost down now but it was certainly not dark, what with all the flames and flashing lights everywhere. Turns out the car was now on the wrong side of the house and there was no longer a way out, although miraculously the fire seemed to have leapfrogged us.
Eventually there was little more we could do. Our patch seemed to be under control and as the trucks had run out of water they went off to re-fill. The wattle trees continued to burn brightly outside the fence. We tried to eat our braaied meat although to be honest my stomach was still in a knot. The whole house smelt like a camp-site.
All we could do was keep an eye on the perimeter, Stu did tireless quadrant checks. Later on the original fire started to come down the back ridge in our direction, and Stu wet the outside of the house with the bigger hose that side. We wished for the wind to stop blowing. It didn’t. We kept our eyes on the fire-line in the distance, but as it started to look like it wasn’t coming any closer we began to believe it might be over. At about half past eleven the fire marshal parked in our driveway and Stu went out to have a word. He assured us, “we have it under control, go to bed!” He promised to wake us should anything change.
Falling into bed I was sure I wouldn’t sleep a wink, but in the end, after a few last checks out the window, I dropped off sometime later. The guys must have moved off about 2am I think. Later that morning I went to have a look at the desolate landscape left behind and saw the small fire truck doing another turn, checking for any still-smouldering areas to extinguish. They must have come back at least 4 more times that day. The fire (here) was out at last.
I have a new appreciation for the work these men and women do to protect lives and property. A great many of the people involved in helping us were volunteers from the area. I was so grateful for their calm reassuring presence, their dedication and of course their courage. Truly they are all heroes.
If you should see any suspicious smoke whilst you are in the Cape please call 112 straight away and report it. Sadly most of these fires are started by people, either accidentally or (even more alarmingly) on purpose.
And to the people that helped us that night – a very big thank you and God bless!
*featured image: the first signs of trouble