So, I wake up on Tuesday morning and the air is full of smoke. Our small and homely peaks have been smouldering since the early hours of Sunday, but over Monday night the flames have spread along the flanks and summits of the chain forming the Peninsula’s backbone.
Now the fire is eating its way, like a hungry dragon, into every cleft and gully, and finding even better feeding over the back-end into Hout Bay and Noordhoek.
At least there’s no wind, but Cape Town is expecting somewhere in the region of 39 degrees today, and it’s the kind of heat that makes flammable plant-sap boil. If there wasn’t a fire, you’d be hearing cicadas and expecting the haze-cloaked fynbos to burst into flames on its own. On this day, there’s a perfect storm brewing as the tongues of flame seek out the ready vegetation.
Having a sense that this is escalating and I don’t want to be caught short, I ask to work from home. Through the day tension builds: the fire has spread to Lakeside, it’s above Kirstenhof, Hout Bay is aflame – a lodge and homes have burnt down there, and old-age village near Noordhoek has already been evacuated. I watch the fire-helicopters filling their buckets at Lakeside’s vlei and whirling past us to deal with the massive fires on the other side.
All the while, the saddle (about 500m wide) between our two small and homely peaks burns in a steady and well-mannered fashion, a perfect arc of slow-moving flame. On a couple of occasions the choppers break off to send a few well-aimed sprays below the arc, and then off they go again. The vegetation at the top of our gully is thin, but the lower you go, the denser the fybos gets – and that’s what I’m watching for.
During the day I hear the drone of power-saws as fire services cut back bush and trees along Boyes Drive – what I don’t know is that they’re drenching the area as they go. And, as I find out later, their actions mean the difference between life and death, on this day.
Halfway through the afternoon I see massive flames appear from behind the right hand side of our mountain, and it’s horrible – not a slow burn, but mad and greedy fire. The choppers water-bomb and stop it in its tracks.
By late afternoon, our orderly fire has reached the thick vegetation line, and you can see it sit up and take notice. While it doesn’t break its line at first, the speed picks up, and before long it’s lapping all along both sides of the mountain, and starting to race down the centre. I call fire-services – they pass the info on, but by now they’re fighting literal fire-storms in Clovelly, fire in Fish Hoek, Hout Bay, Tokai and Constantia.
The sun sets and, as far as I can tell, the choppers can’t bomb at night. It’s important you know that I am two residential blocks away from the gully, and while I’m editing medical news, I can hear the flames. The mountain is crackling. One eerie thing that happens now: the neighbourhood dogs start to bark. A friend on FB asks if she can come and get me out of there – I tell her that I’ll let her know if it gets out of hand.
As darkness comes, the fire is more obvious. It’s now so close that I can see flare-ups as it hits the small woody-stemmed bushes and trees. Even worse is the smoke that’s rolling in everywhere. Shut windows and doors don’t help, and this scares me worse than the fire.
At around 10.30pm it changes – the well-ordered burn from the afternoon turns into an insane and raging wall of flame. No more crackling, now it’s a low roar, and I see big trees silhouetted against the red and orange light for a moment, just before they’re eaten whole.
By now I can hear people in the flats beside and below me coughing, and my eyes are burning. I pack a bag with some vital clothing, all our important docs and discs, a few photo albums and the dratted charger, and it makes me feel better. Then I go outside to watch the fire racing towards Boyes Drive – two houses up from us.
I’m trying to figure out whether, at 11pm at night, I can call on my friend – trying to figure out what to do. A young guy comes out of our elevator, and I say: “It’s getting scary.”
He smiles at me and replies in accented English: “It’s going to be alright.”
I say: “I don’t know – look at the thick foliage on our side of Boyes Drive – there are spark-bundles the size of cats shooting out of that, and it only takes one…”
He leans forward and says: “They’ve soaked the bush on both sides – don’t worry – it will be alright.” “Okay.” I say.
And, weirdly, I feel like it will be. I take the elevator back up to my floor and watch from the balcony: the fire literally stops short. It’s clearly reached the break right beside Boyes Drive.
It’s only the next day when I see pictures of what was happening on Boyes Drive that I get what those fire-fighters were doing.