Garden Route fears worst is still to come as fires resume

11 June 2017 - 02:04 By BOBBY JORDAN

A man died, thousands fled their homes, and one of South Africa's top schools was partially destroyed yesterday when huge wildfires flared up in gale-force wind.By late yesterday the circumstances of the latest death were still unclear, but it brings to six the total number killed in fires that began on Wednesday outside Knysna and subsequently spread as far as Port Elizabeth.A further five people have been transferred to hospital with serious injuries since the fires began, Knysna Municipality confirmed late yesterday.Several buildings inside the Woodridge College campus outside Port Elizabeth were still on fire yesterday evening, Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality spokesman Mthubanzi Mniki confirmed."Firefighters are working hard to extinguish and save other buildings. Everyone at the school was evacuated early [yesterday]," Mniki said in a statement. It was uncertain how much of the school remained, Mniki told the Sunday Times. The school's entrance had served as a fire-fighting joint-operations centre, but officials beat a hasty retreat when flames threatened to engulf them.It was just one of innumerable fires associated with strong wind and low-pressure winter weather moving eastwards across the country. In four days the fires have wreaked havoc across a wide area, in particular around Knysna, where many residents were evacuated for the second time this week.Late yesterday an entire holiday town - Buffalo Bay outside Knysna - and several neighbourhoods in the surrounding area had to be evacuated as fire-fighters tried in vain to halt a blaze that changed direction in unpredictable winds.By yesterday evening, winds appeared to have subsided over much of the affected area, with milder wind forecast for the southern Cape today. However, authorities have warned residents to be cautious.Knysna Municipality yesterday said the fire had so far destroyed over 400 formal and 200 informal structures in and around the town, and a further 20 in Plettenberg Bay.The figure includes a five-star boutique hotel outside Plettenberg Bay, several mansions on Robberg beach, and parts of Knysna's 'Wit Lokasie' township overlooking the Knysna lagoon.The full extent of the damage is not yet known due to the vast area involved, much of it remote.Army helicopters deployed in Knysna yesterday dumped water from the lagoon onto fire hotspots in the surrounding hills, but had to be grounded for lengthy periods due to the severe wind.Knysna endured a hellish night on Wednesday when large parts of three hilltop suburbs were destroyed, prompting chaotic scenes in the popular tourist town.Wind gusts of up to 100km/h literally showered much of the town with embers, setting fire to pockets of vegetation.In dramatic scenes befitting a war movie, about 100 people were temporarily evacuated onto the beach at Buffalo Bay yesterday afternoon as the fire closed off all escape routes. It later subsided and residents returned to their homes.

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