Wupperthal residents struggle to pick up the pieces after 'tragic' blaze
The remote community of Wupperthal in the Western Cape saw in the new year with tears and grief after fire destroyed more than 50 homes and most of the historic town’s important buildings.
The fire broke out late on Sunday. Within hours, it had raged through the town's thatched-roof buildings. By the time firefighters reached Clanwilliam, still 35km away from Wupperthal on a winding dirt road, the damage had already been done.
Between 200 and 250 people were left homeless.
One of the relatively lucky ones was Mandy Wynand, a mother of three whose house has a corrugated iron roof. Thatched-roof houses surrounding hers were destroyed, along with everything inside them.
“The fire spread so quickly, there was nothing we could do except run outside to get to safety,” she told TimesLIVE when we visited the area on Tuesday. “We couldn’t take anything out of the house with us.”
Wynand said elderly residents in the town, which was established in 1830 as a mission station by the Moravian Church, were suffering the most. “You can see the sadness in their eyes," she said. "Everything they have ever known is in ruins.”
You can see the sadness in their eyes. Everything they have ever known is in ruins.Mandy Wynand
Madre Adams was in Wupperthal visiting her 75-year-old grandmother when the fire broke out. “When we heard it was burning, we went outside to see where it was burning. Then they said it’s the hall that’s burning, so we ran there to take out the chairs and try to save them,” she said.
“Then the houses started burning and we ran there to help. The houses were burning quickly. The smoke was terrible. The flames spread very fast.”
Adams said her grandmother was “OK” now and staying with family in Cape Town, “but when the house started burning, she didn’t want to leave. We had to help her out."
“It’s tragic. How do you start a new year like this?” asked resident Franklin Samson.
He said all the people left homeless by the blaze had been taken in by relatives or friends whose homes had survived the flames. Those who had lost all their possessions were dependent on donations, which have already started streaming in from surrounding towns and Cape Town.
Sakkie Hanekom searched through the ruins of the house where Louis Leipoldt used to live on Tuesday, looking for momentoes to save from the ashes.
His wife Gillian said she had grown up in the house, where her great-grandparents had once lived.
“There are a lot of tears today. All this history has been destroyed,” said Sakkie.
There are a lot of tears today. All this history has been destroyed.Sakkie Hanekom
Adams said townspeople believed that the fire started when two young men tried to smoke bees out of a hive. However, Martin Abrahams, vice-president of the local Moravian Church, told a community meeting that this was just one version of events. He said a team of forensic experts would investigate.
Anton Bredell, MEC for local government, visited the town on Tuesday with his head of department, Graham Paulse, and other officials. They said most of the damaged buildings would have to be demolished because they were unsafe, and dangerous asbestos building materials would have to be removed by a specialist company.
Bredell said officials hoped to restore running water to the town within hours, and work would start on Wednesday to restore electricity.