Nine die in Garden Route fires - and there’s no sign of rain
One devastated Rheenendal family lost a pregnant woman, five children and a baby
Hundreds of residents from the woodcutting community of Rheenendal spent Tuesday staring at a colossal column of smoke rising out of the forested mountains.
Above them, a solitary air force Oryx transport helicopter with a bucket of water dangling below it battled an icy gale in its lonely fight against the flames.
Most of the residents had already been evacuated from their wooden homes in buses that took them to emergency camps run by the government, with the help of NGOs such as the Red Cross.
But for some it was already too late: near the settlement of Karatara a family lost seven members: a pregnant woman, five children and a baby.
Police closed the road to the family’s house, allowing only medical staff and investigators through.
Knysna mayor Mark Willemse said the fires had killed nine people by Tuesday morning.
At 2.30pm on Monday, woodsman John Hartzenberg, 49, was called to the home in Karatara he shared with his brother. The fire, which started on the Outeniqua mountains above George, had spread to his rural neighbourhood.
When he got there, flames fanned by extreme winds were jumping a pigsty and licking at his “hokkie”, a small hut behind his brother’s home.
“It happened very quickly,” said Hartzenberg, standing on contorted corrugated iron sheets that once formed his roof.
“This was my garage,” he said, pointing at a burnt-out motorbike and an engine block. “I’ve lost everything. It’s all gone.”
Behind him, two piglets sniffed their dead mother. She had died from smoke inhalation. The legs of several more piglets poked through holes in a grain sack. Hartzenberg and his brother slit their throats in their hasty evacuation so they would not suffer the same fate as their mother.
He gave the remaining two piglets water and bread from the disaster relief centre in the community hall.
By Tuesday evening fires were still raging in George and the N2 was reportedly closed near Storms River, where more fires had started.
It is only 16 months since the last devastating fires on the Garden Route. Rain was expected in George overnight, but by sunset on Tuesday there was no sign of it.