The historic Lourensford Estate, owned by retail giant Christo Wiese, was under threat on Friday as high winds swept fires closer to the famous wine farm and tourist stop near Somerset West.
“The fire has moved over to the Lourensford area,” said Working on Fire spokesperson Lauren Howard.
“We have three Huey helicopters, a spotter plane, and a fixed wing air tractor bomber on scene.”
About 300 firefighters, assisted by backups from the Eastern Cape and Free State, were helping to put the blaze out. At least 40% of the Vergelegen wine farm was burnt earlier this week, but that fire seems to be petering out.
The Lourensford wine estate dates back to the 1700s and was established by Adrian van der Stel, who was Governor of the Cape.
On Thursday, firefighters thought the danger was over, but extremely strong winds have whipped the flames up again.
Those on the scene with Working on Fire included the City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue, Cape Nature, Volunteer Wildfire Services, and hundreds of people who are collecting and ferrying food, refreshments and eye drops to the firefighters from towns such as Somerset West and Strand.
Twenty horses also had to be evacuated on Tuesday night for fear that the fire might pass through their stables.
Alien vegetation still a major problem
But the Western Cape Department of the Environmental Affairs and Development Planning was angry that the fires could have been avoided if landowners had properly managed the invasive alien plants on their properties.
“Landowners who have not managed invasive alien plants on their properties must be held accountable for that impact on the fires that have ravaged areas around Somerset West,” said a strongly worded statement from Dr Guy Preston, deputy director-general in the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Invasive plants such as pines, wattles and gums, burn with an intensity 10 times more than that of the indigenous plants they displace, said Preston.
According to him, all of the 80 structures burned in the January 2000 fires on Table Mountain were surrounded by invasive plants. Programmes to get landowners to clear invasive plants since then, had meant that only eight structures were burned in the March 2015 fires on Table Mountain. But seven of those eight structures were surrounded by invasive plants.
He said firefighters and pilots had risked their lives, but landowners had not taken the necessary steps to prevent intense wild fires.
“Some of the landowners in the area, such as Vergelegen and the Lourensford Estate, have taken responsible precautions, but may have suffered losses as a result of the neglect of their neighbours,” continued Preston.
The need to clear the invasive plants to reduce the spread of fires was borne out by a study in 2015, which found that failure to clear the invasives was an “important contributor” to the damage, let alone the costs carried by owners, neighbours, evacuees and those inconvenienced by road closures.
“The national, provincial and local government firefighters, as well as landowners and volunteers, have played an exceptional role in preventing potential carnage in the exceptionally strong winds on Tuesday, 3 January,” Preston said.
“As with the fires on Table Mountain in 2000 and 2015, we have been lucky with the winds. We cannot count on being lucky all the time.”
The fire near Somerset West had, by Wednesday, burnt down 3 500ha in the Helderberg Mountains, and 40% of the historic and award-winning Vergelegen wine farm.
Bezweni Lodge, on the mountain slopes in the Sir Lowry’s Pass area, was also gutted, leaving the owner Peter Weideman with only the clothes he was wearing and items in his pockets.
Words: Jenni Evans. Photography: Ruben Swart