Hell and high water — but great storm does not deliver drought-breaking rain

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NATURE'S SHOW: Huge waves crashing over the break wall at Sea Point in Cape Town provided a spectacle.
NATURE'S SHOW: Huge waves crashing over the break wall at Sea Point in Cape Town provided a spectacle.

Scores of residents in Knysna in the Western Cape were forced to flee their homes last night as fires, fuelled by gale-force winds, raged through the coastal town.

Western Cape local governance spokesman James-Brent Styan confirmed an evacuation by emergency services in the town of 77,000 residents. But he could not immediately estimate how many people had been moved from their homes.

The Western Cape Disaster Management Centre said late last night residents had been evacuated from Belvedere, Brenton-on-Sea, Welbedacht, Nania, Eastford, Green Pastures and Knysna Heights but there was "no call for a mass evacuation of the entire Knysna".

At least three people - including a farmworker, his wife and son - died in a fire in Rheenendal.

"These are the worst fires I have seen in the 45 years I've lived in Knysna," said the town's mayor, Eleanore Bouw-Spies.

Firefighters responded to at least 26 fires along the Garden Route as much of Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Sedgefield and Wilderness were shrouded in smoke.

FANNED BY WIND: A massive fire broke out at the Kranshoek Viewpoint area just outside Plettenberg Bay early yesterday. It quickly spread along the coast and cut inland by midday. This is just one of several fires that raged between Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay Picture: EWALD STANDER

The devastating fires came in the wake of a huge storm that wreaked havoc across the Western Cape and claimed at least eight lives.

Eden District Municipality disaster management boss Gerhard Otto said all available staff had been deployed to deal with the fires, including those that had been on rest breaks.

By mid-morning, about 13 houses had been evacuated outside Knysna towards Plettenberg Bay.

The N2 between the two holiday towns was closed yesterday due to low visibility from smoke.

Plettenberg Bay and Knysna were also without power for most of the day because of the fires.

Knysna fire chief Clinton Manuel said there was little hope of stopping the fires and officials would continue evacuating all those in its path.

At least 11 fire engines were deployed from neighbouring towns and the City of Cape Town. Working on Fire has sent more than 120 firefighters.

Meanwhile, those in need of help had difficulty contacting the local fire station as people tweeted that phone lines were down.

A woman took to Twitter to say an elderly woman was stranded on a hilltop after fleeing her home.

Panic was spreading, with some people struggling to locate their relatives.

The Knysna Provincial Hospital was ablaze, a local resident told The Times.

"The fire began on the one side but is now spreading to the other side of town and the hospital is on fire. Basically, the whole town is burning," said journalist Ivo Vegter.

Earlier, Vegter said on Twitter: "Knysna is burning down. This is a disaster of epic proportions. I'm stuck in fleeing traffic. Not sure I'll have a home tomorrow."

Martin Hatchuel said he had fled his home in Fisher Haven late yesterday afternoon to be with his family on Leisure Isle. He said large sections of the town were on fire and many buildings had already been lost.

"It's a f***up," he said. "Apparently the main centre of town is burning."

DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard said on Facebook her mother had fled a fire threatening Brenton-on-Sea. "She has taken her dog and some papers and driven off."

Cape Town saw scenes of devastation as trees and street poles were felled and roofs ripped off by winds, while monster waves battered the coastline.

The heartache of losing a home was repeated for hundreds of people in Hout Bay.

Hundreds of structures destroyed by the storm yesterday had been built less than three months ago for families who lost everything when Imizamo Yethu was razed.

City of Cape Town teams worked to clear roads throughout the day, and at one point the city council asked residents to stop phoning its call centre, which was struggling to cope.

In Taiwan, Khayelitsha, community leader Noxolo Masilika said: "In this area alone 18 families were affected.

"Four shacks were blown away by wind and others were washed away by water. Some are trying to set up their homes in this weather while others moved in with relatives and neighbours."

Masilika said she helped deliver a baby in a shack in the middle of the storm. The child's mother had lost her home a few moments earlier and sought refuge with a neighbour.

"There was hardly enough room to move inside. We moved crates and other household items to accommodate her," said Masilika.

City of Cape Town disaster management spokesman Charlotte Powell said more than 800 families were homeless yesterday due to the storm: 362 from the emergency area built for Imizamo Yethu.

There were 74 from Disa Park and 264 from Madiba Square, both in Hout Bay, and 97 due to flooding in Macassar Village.

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