Witness account: How I escaped raging Knysna fires

Emma Jordan.
Image: Supplied Emma Jordan.

When the electricity went out on Wednesday we knew the fires that had been raging in Knysna were getting close to Plett.

To protect the firefighters working in the forest that surrounds the area‚ where live electricity lines run underground‚ electricity to most of the town was cut.

We haven’t had rain for months and it was hot the previous day‚ so when the strong winds started‚ we knew that we should be on high alert. 

Ironically‚ a level 1 dought warning was issued on Wednesday.  I also recently tore the ligaments in my foot‚ so I have very limited mobility and am using crutches.

In the darkness we went to sleep and woke up at around midnight with hectic 50km/h winds raging outside our windows and rattling our roof.

The roof access hatch was violently banging‚ an emergency NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute)  siren was sounding across the town for what seemed like a very long time and‚ while my four year old daughter slept‚ I started to pack.

A few weeks ago‚ a friend’s house burnt down. She told me that she’d had 20 minutes to grab her essential belongings and flee the property — so I knew I’d better be prepared.

I don’t have content insurance‚ so I took some family heirlooms and some of my daughter’s favourite dolls. I took the passports‚ some jeans and jerseys‚ hiking shoes and Wellington boots.

 I couldn’t resist taking an expensive dress that was hanging in my closet — though if I’d had less time I know I would have left it. With the help of my domestic worker‚ Sarah Chatora‚ we packed the car to capacity.

We felt like refugees fleeing some violent coup. By then‚ the approaching fire had burnt down the cell phone towers so communication was difficult. I managed to contact a friend who lived just below Whale Rock Ridge. She said the fire was very close and she was leaving with her two young kids and going to stay with family further away.

Later I heard that the whole of Whale Rock was evacuated. She added me to a WhatsApp group residents had started which had a ‘‘point” person informing members of the movements of the fire and when each street should evacuate.

The air was thick with smoke and the sky was an eerie orange. From the WhatsApp group I learned that the fire had already burnt most of the Robberg Peninsula. At about 3:30 the wind changed and the fire leapt across Solar Beach burning down luxury beach houses as it moved closer to us. The Qolweni township was in the fire’s path too.

 Emergency stations were quickly set up on the edge of the forest where it meets the township. A response unit was set up at the community hall but when the fire got too close to that building it was moved to Plett Primary School. I felt panicked as I watched the fire getting closer and a friend phoned at 6:30am and said that it was time to move.

 I put the cat in a box‚ got dressed and told my daughter that we were going on an adventure. Leaving the house‚ and trying to drive‚ in pain and with a moon boot‚ I was anxious because I didn’t really know which parts of the town were safe.

It felt like a refugee wasteland — soot coming down from the sky‚ the feeling of smoke in our lungs and the sense that the whole town was watching the sky‚ praying for rain. When we got to Main Road there was a sharp polarity‚ people seemed like they were going about their everyday lives — if you ignored the smoke.

There were even tourists taking pictures of the lagoon which looked beautiful‚ reflecting the orange sky. At the evacuation point people were arriving in their pyjamas.

I realised that many friends had lost their houses. Conspiracy theories were flying around. People were saying that 26 fires had been set simultaneously.

One person on the group said that he’d seen a man trying to set a fire. I asked why — for looting‚ was the answer. I learnt that my friends Stuart Palmer and Rhian Berning’s house had burnt down. It was recently featured in the cover of the Sunday Times Home Weekly.

Friends that own the Cairnbrogie farm on Airport road spent the night chopping down their for trees to try and save their cows. Later‚ on Thursday morning‚ rain began to fall and the smoke cleared. The rain put out the fires but they’re still smouldering. Last night was another night of high alert.    

*Emma Jordan is a writer who lives in Plettenberg Bay with her four year old daughter.