7 June 2018

South Africa: Knysna Fires - 'There Was No Life Left Here. Just Death. No Butterflies, No Birds, No Nothing'

The Knysna fires of 2017 were like walking into a war zone, says resident Wendy du Toit a year after the area's devastating blazes.

"Knysna Heights looked like bombs were thrown in the area... 24 of the 48 houses in the area were destroyed. Glass, smoke and burning buildings everywhere," Du Toit told News24.

"When we arrived at our home, a day after the fire, everything was destroyed. A lifetime of memories disappeared in a minute."

Du Toit, 58, and her husband Kobus, 72, were among the 600 families who lost their homes in the fires of June 2017, which killed seven people, including a family of three who died on their farm in Elandskraal.

Some 28 fires were reported in the area on June 8 alone.

"There weren't thoughts of if we have to rebuild. Like any war, you just have to focus on survival," said Du Toit, who had to take antidepressants after the fire.

"There was no life left here. Just death. No butterflies, no birds, no nothing."

A few kilometres from where the Du Toits rebuilt their property, the community of White Location is struggling to recover from the fire.

Community worker Peggy Dlephu, 47, said most of the 300 people who were displaced by the fire had been unable to rebuild their lives.

"Most are still staying with their friends and families. The fire took their livelihoods away," Dlephu said in a harsh tone.

"Where once they were employed by the big hotels in the area, the hotels burnt down and they are now left jobless. Something needs to change."

'There was no time for thinking'

The Western Cape government estimated that more than R136m worth of infrastructure damage occurred in Knysna over three days, but the damage to private property extends well beyond R4bn.

On Thursday, Working on Fire (WoF) said the Knysna fire had resulted in the single largest deployment of firefighters in South African history. "[The fire] caused devastation and destruction on a scale that had never been experienced [before]."

Caroline Terblanche, a nurse who volunteered in a makeshift hospital on the day of the fire, said it still felt surreal.

"All that I can remember of the day is how time stood still, like I would wake up any minute."

She said she didn't sleep at all on the night of the fire.

"We were running, moving the local hospital's patients into a church hall, just to evacuate hours later, throwing patients on the back of bakkies and chasing down the street with patients in wheelchairs to save lives.

"It felt like a movie scene - lights flashing and fires encircling us - but we had to persevere. There was no time for thinking."

'There at the water, everyone was equal'

Together with community workers such as Dlephu, Terblanche has been helping more than 400 families with temporary accommodation, food and clothes over the past year.

She said the only moment she felt like giving up was when she saw her family farm in Kanonkop destroyed three weeks after the fire.

"To see where I played as a child, the memories, I couldn't take it anymore."

Dlephu, an artist by profession, said she still dreamed of running towards the water on the night of the fire.

"We were told, over the radio, to just run. Run to the water, because it was the only thing that could save us," she said softly.

"If there's one thing I learnt that night, it is that if God wants to take you, he doesn't care about race, if you are rich or poor. There at the water, everyone was equal."


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