Safety and fire during the hot, dry and windy Cape Town Summer months

Cape Town’s fire season occurs from November through May when it is most hot and dry, together with the windy season, creating the ideal conditions for wildfires to occur and quickly get out of control. From homes and businesses to the Table Mountain National Park, there are various organisations in place to manage fire safety and interventions that should be taken, both to avoid fire and to control it when it happens. 

Fires are not something we want to think about but are part of our reality in Cape Town due to the weather conditions as well as natural conditions in our fynbos ecosystem. It is most important to keep your home, family and business safe, protecting life and property, as our urban living spaces share a boundary with the national parks in many parts of Cape Town and the Western Cape.

helicopter dropping water on Cape Town fires 2021 on Table Mountain
Cape Town fires 2021. Source: Associated Press.

Just in April 2021, the Rhodes Memorial fire, also known as the 2021 Table Mountain fire, saw several buildings devastated, including four buildings at the University of Cape Town along with their Special Collections library, the restaurant at Rhodes Memorial and the old historic windmill next to the M3, Mostert’s Mill. Over 250 firefighters were involved in putting out the fires and five were hospitalised. Later it was acknowledged that mitigation strategies should have been put in place, citing the ivy-lined walls as a fire hazard. 

“Removing the understory of pine plantation and preventing excessive build-up of leaf litter in general is a good place to start,” said UCT’s Department of Biological Sciences’ Emeritus Professor William Bond, adding, “Wildfires are an entirely natural feature of many flammable ecosystems. They are bound to happen, and many forms of life require them to complete their life cycles.” Until recently, he says, “veld fires that cross over into urban areas have been quite rare in the Cape”. Oftentimes woody alien tree species are far more flammable than our local native fynbos species. These trees are able to produce embers that become airborne and can travel great distances from 30 to 45km and more.

“Ember-proofing any area, according to California guidelines, requires removal of flammable plants up to 7m from a building, as well as overhanging branches, if necessary. Checking and cleaning gutters and roofing for debris is important too. Very useful pamphlets to ‘firescape’ your property are available from Working on Fire and Fire Wise, and this information needs to be made more widely available to those with properties close to the urban edge.”

Home and work checklist for fire safety

  • Always have a “grab bag” with your important documents in it.
  • Assign tasks to family members or staff such as placing pets or kids in the car and driving them to safety at a friend’s house out of smoke danger.
  • If you need to stay and help fight fires, cover your head, nose and mouth and protect your eyes with goggles. Wear good shoes and gloves.
  • Wetting the roof and gutters can stop hot ash from burning the roof.
  • Keep grass cut as short grass helps slow down fire.
  • Keep a hose pipe rolled up and ready to put out fires.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in kitchens and train staff or family members how to use it.
  • If you volunteer on the mountain in a wildfire, take a spade  –  this helps to beat out fire or throw sand on smouldering grass tufts.
  • Always remember, your safety is first.
The Western Cape fire season occurs during the hot summer and autumn months

Resources

Western Cape Government

City of Cape Town

Sanparks

Contact information

Fire and Rescue Service Department

24-hour emergencies:

Telephone: 107 (landline) or 021 480 7700 (cellphone)

General fire safety enquiries:

Telephone: 021 590 1971 / 021 590 1975

To report a fire in the Table Mountain National Park

Please call:

  • Hotline: 086 110 6417 or
  • The City’s Regional Fire Control No: (021) 590 1900
  • Newlands Fire Base: Tel: +27(0) 21 689 7438

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