Resort town ablaze

12 November 2012 - 02:48 By Graeme Hosken, Shaanaaz de Jager and MKHULULI NDAMAZE


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Fires raging through the holiday town of St Francis Bay have destroyed scores of luxury homes, boats, restaurants and other businesses, trapping terrified residents and stretching overwhelmed firefighters to the limit.

With gale force winds driving the flames, emergency workers and volunteers raced to evacuate large sections of the Eastern Cape town, where up to 100 houses were destroyed.

By late last night damage was estimated at well over R100-million. But there were no reports of serious injuries.

The blaze - thought to have started from a spark from a late-afternoon braai and compounded by a power outage that took down telephone lines - swept through the town's luxury thatch villas and mansions within minutes, razing everything in its path. Many of the destroyed homes, owned by wealthy South Africans and foreign businesspeople , we re situated in the Canals.

With winds tearing into the town late last night, emergency workers raced to shut down bridges and stop people from trying to reach their homes, leaving many watching in horror as houses were burned to the ground.

Fire engines from Humansdorp, Jeffreys Bay and Port Elizabeth were called in.

Compounding the firefighters' problems were water shortages.

Estate agent Esme Welman described the situation in the resort town as absolute pandemonium.

"There are not enough firefighters. The National Sea Rescue Institute has called for civilians to come and assist. We tried to get firefighters from Port Elizabeth here but there were huge delays because we're 'out' of their region.

"You can see the flames destroying houses, boats and businesses. You can hear houses and restaurants with gas supplies exploding. It sounds like war.

"People want to get to their homes, but they can't. Volunteers have shut off the bridges, but some people have refused to leave their homes. There are fears they could become trapped," she said.

"None of these houses is worth anything less than a million. Wealthy homeowners who run businesses have phoned me to find out if their houses are alright, but I don't know what to tell them. I haven't got the heart to break the news to them," Welman said.

She said winds were blowing at nearly 60km/h.

"We are slowly being encircled. Soon there will be nowhere to go. Those fighting the fire are saying it might be too much and that they might retreat to try to save what they can."

St Francis Chronicle editor Bev Mortimer said people were fleeing for their lives. "People are trying to reach safety. They are leaving everything. Their clothes, possessions and some even their cars. The entire Canals is under threat, with The Village - the business district - also facing destruction.

"The biggest problem is that the houses are all thatch and are burning like kindling. The roads are closed and people have gone to the sea. If the winds turn any more, then we are all gone. There will be nothing left," she said.

Annemi Bosch, a manager at the Royal Wharf Marine Resort, said she received a call from a security company at about 5pm saying a fire had broken out in one of the units.

"It's terrible ... The people were sleeping upstairs and they smelled smoke and they climbed out through the balcony," she said.

Nevil Hullet, whose father founded the town, said: "Within half an hour, five houses were burnt. Within an hour, 10 houses and within two hours, about 20."

He said the home of Springbok surf coaching legend, Graham Hynes, was also destroyed.

"We took out what we could and I tried to wet his roof ... the house is completely gutted," Hullet said.

He said it was the second time Hynes, who is in his 80s, house had burnt down.

Paramedic Thea Marx said he and his colleagues had treated people for smoke inhalation. "Fortunately, there are no serious injuries yet. But we do not know if everyone has managed to get to safety."

Calibre Security officer Neil Jacobs said the fire brigade was battling to control the blaze. "Evacuations are taking place. Residents are moving to higher ground, with many going to the town hall."

Captain John Fobian, of the provincial disaster management, said the fire's cause was unknown.