Ravaged Knysna counts cost

SPARKED: Knysna Heights resident Helmut Baumann examines the remains of his gutted home. Image by: EUGENE COETZEE
“Everything happened so fast. One minute the wind was blowing, the next thing the chickens were running wild,” said 42-year-old Michael Jafta, huddled under a grey blanket and waiting for a volunteer to warm up some soup.

He and his brother Johnny, 44, lost the Salt River home they had lived in for a decade in one of the fires that swept through the Garden Route. “I lost everything, everything,” said a tearful Michael, who had taken refuge with his brother and dozens of others in the Hornlee Community Hall.

Maureen Barnard, owner of Knysna Terrace Guesthouse, had taken in people who had lost their homes when her own property caught alight.

UPDATE: Hell and high water as Western Cape battles fires‚ strong winds and massive waves

“I feel so bad because these people had already lost everything and then the guesthouse goes on fire,” she said yesterday.

“I was able to save my cat and computer. Other than that I only have the clothes on my back.”

Knysna yesterday was a town in shock, disbelief, confusion and loss. Wind-whipped wildfires that started on Wednesday saw 10 000 people flee their homes and 300 structures were razed between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay.

Evacuees were ferried to safety in buses, trucks and boats.

A man aged 91 is believed to have died of a heart attack after fleeing his home and seeking refuge in a Knysna Quays hotel and the discovery of a three-year-old’s body in Welbedacht brought the death toll to five.

Tony Johnston, his wife Madre, and their toddler, Michael, died in Rheenendal on Wednesday.

Lunice Johnston, Tony’s cousin, said the couple were high school sweethearts who loved the outdoors.

“They lived in the forest. Very isolated,” she said. “We understand their whole area was engulfed in flames and they tried to escape, but were just outside their home when they were surrounded and trapped by thick smoke.

Witness account: How I escaped raging Knysna fires

“Their home was burnt to the ground. Our family is devastated but we know somehow we’ll get through this.”

Firefighters responded to at least 26 fires, one of which claimed the home of Dave Rademeyer, 40, who wandered aimlessly through the ruins of his home at Essendale farm yesterday. “Ja, it’s a bit of a thing, but we will rebuild.”

Shane and Lesley-Ann Leech and their 12-year-old daughter now call an angling club home.

The Leeches were at home when the fire reached their house. They escaped, but in a matter of minutes it burnt to the ground.

In Plettenberg Bay, Clifford Elphick – founder and CEO of Gem Diamond Mining – lost his multimillion-rand holiday home to the fire and cancelled a business trip to the UK to rush to Plettenberg Bay. A contractor who had just finished painting parts of the house said the tycoon would be shocked by what he found.

The fires sparked a massive relief effort involving businesses, government agencies and NGOs around the country. Hundreds of local volunteers also stepped in.

George resident Michelle Botes drove 50km on Wednesday to rescue fire victims in Buffels Bay.

“To see people lose their houses and all their belongings is hectic,” she said. “The only thing they carried out is just a bag or blanket and a dog or a cat – that’s it.”

Springbok rugby players and management also offered to help after spending last week at a training camp on the Garden Route in preparation for tomorrow’s first rugby Test against France.

“It is just so sad to see what is happening at the moment,” said coach Allister Coetzee.

“That is the first thing the players spoke about and our condolences go out to those families.”

Simultaneous fires starting at the same time “raises a big red flag” and suggests “deliberate agency”, said forensic investigator David Klatzow.

But James-Brent Styan, spokesman for MEC of Local Government, environmental affairs and development planning Anton Bredell said arson was not suspected or being investigated.

PETRU SAAL, FARREN COLLINS, KATHARINE CHILD, MAHLATSE MPHAHLELE and PHILANI NOMBEMBE

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