4 January 2013

Namibia: Wildfire Rips Through Swakopmund's New Year

A WILDFIRE said to have been started by flying lanterns destroyed the north part of the Swakop River mouth wetland and also came dangerously close to the luxury 'The Stiltz' lodge.

Flying lanterns were aggressively marketed in Swakopmund to be a safer alternative to the traditional fireworks; and also more humane towards animals. In fact, the Swakopmund SPCA posted on their Facebook page that they were selling lanterns, and that all the profits go towards the welfare of the SPCA's animals.

Fireworks are reputed to have caused tremendous pain and fear amongst animals, especially dogs, and even though the use of fireworks are banned in municipal areas, it did not stop people from using fireworks over the 2012/1013 - in town. But it was one or more 'innocent' flying lanterns (a sort of paper balloon propelled by the heat of a candle, and driven to float through the air, silently) that led to one of the biggest fires in Swakopmund history.

According to Quinton Liebenberg of the Lighthouse Group, which is also the owner of the Tiger Reef beach bar (situated on the southern edge of the wetland), many of the lanterns were seen floating toward the river mouth as the New Year was welcomed.

"The wind then pushed them down into the area where the wetland is. This is when the fire started," he explained.

For the past few years a huge bonfire would be lit at Tiger Reef to hail the new year, and rumours were rife at first that the fire was caused by the bonfire. Fortunately for Liebenberg, he decided not to have a bonfire this year in respect of Dorob National Park rules.

Regardless, the big New Year's party there was cut short, and the venue was closed at 02h30 so that about 2 700 party-goers could leave in an orderly fashion.

"We had to ensure order because if so many people become panic-stricken, there would be a stampede. The fire was nearby," he said.

The fire ripped through the reeds on the north face of the wetland, with flames licking heights of over 10 metres. The edge of the inferno was also only metres from three of The Stiltz' bungalows.

"The flames were so high and so spread out that it first looked as if The Stiltz was engulfed in flames," said Keren Till, also of the Lighthouse Group.

Most of The Stiltz is built of wood, with several thatch-roofed bungalows and wooden walkways - above the wetland's reeds.

"Someone was looking over us. If one of these bungalows caught fire, there would have been a major catastrophe," said Margret Moolman of The Stiltz.

Cracked windows, scorched wood-beams and the smell of smoke is still evidence that the fire was too close. Even the thatched roofs were damp after being sprayed with water to avoid them from catching fire.

Moolman said that three of the bungalows will have to undergo major rehabilitation and that much of the furniture and other bedding and curtains will have to be replaced.

There were people staying at The Stiltz when the fire broke out, and they had to be evacuated quickly. Now business has been interrupted there as the three most expensive bungalows cannot be accommodated because of the damage.

One thing is for sure: the quick response by Swakopmund's fire-brigade, with the help of the Swakopmund Neighbourhood Watch, security companies and emergency services were commended.

It took about 18 hours for the fire to be put out. Fire chief Adri Goosen got the first call at ten minutes into 2013. The fire was out by 18h00.

"The north-west wind played a major role. It blew the lanterns toward the wetland where the fire started, but it also was a blessing in disguise. It also helped keep the fire away from The Stilz. Had it been the usual south-wester, that place would have been destroyed," he said.

Goosen said that the lanterns were in fact safer than fireworks and said that the New Year's incident was a "freak".

"These lanterns usually only go up. This is a rare incident, and thankfully no property or life was taken. The natural environment suffered a major blow though. It's an important bird breeding area, and it is now destroyed," he said.

Goosen said that the use of the flying lanterns will be discussed with the municipal council because the lanterns are not classified as fireworks.

"The by-law that prohibit fireworks in the municipal area may not be applicable to lanterns. We will have to discuss the issue to ensure that a similiar incident is not repeated."

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