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St Francis Bay reels after runaway fire

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By Murray Williams, Brendan Roane And Sapa

Cape Town - A South African surfing legend is one of many who lost their life’s possessions in the blaze which ripped through St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape.

Sunday night’s blaze, thought to have been started by a braai fire, destroyed more than 100 houses in the holiday town, 100km south of Port Elizabeth.

Resident Nevil Hulett said his house was upwind of the blaze, but he had leapt to the aid of fellow residents.

One of them was Graham Hynes, 83, regarded by many as the grandfather of South African surfing.

Hulett explained: “It was around 6.30-7pm, dusk, and I was trying to hose his house down, but unfortunately I have a broken arm, so I could not get to the cap of the thatched roof, which one had to do to allow the water to run down the roof.

“My shirt was burning through, gas bottles were exploding next door... it was impossible.”

He said at some point the water pressure had also dropped - possibly due to the firefighters having connected their powerful hoses to the water system - which immediately weakened pressure to residents’ hoses.

“He had about 10 minutes to get what he could out of his house before it went up,” Hulett said of Hynes.

Hynes said he was watching TV when he smelled smoke.

“I could see the smoke over the water,” said Hynes, who has lived along the canal in the area since 2004.

Looking up the road, he could see a holiday resort was on fire and he heard people screaming.

“The wind was knocking around and the sparks started to land on the roofs,” said Hynes.

He climbed up onto his roof, which had caught alight, with a hosepipe and tried to extinguish the flames.

“I had the firemen shouting at me to get down,” Hynes said.

Photographs of his late wife, a medal awarded to him by former president Nelson Mandela, documents and a recipe for a Durban curry were among the prized possessions that Hynes lost in the fire.

He said he had a headache caused by inhaling smoke and that he had received several offers to stay with people in the area.

The community put out a call for help and the response had ben “great”, according to Marc May, the station commander of the St Francis Bay National Sea Rescue Institute.

“To say the whole world and its family came to put that out is an understatement,” he said.

He said people came from as far as Knysna and Port Elizabeth, 200km and 100km from St Francis Bay respectively.

“We’re just trying to get people’s lives back on track today ,” said May.

“Some people have lost holiday homes, but some people have lost everything.”

He believed about half of the homes that were burnt down to belonged to residents.

“The fire was running across the roofs, we had to force people out of their homes with the TVs still on,” said May.

As of this morning, there were no plans to set up a refuge for people who had lost their homes as they had already been “absorbed” into the community by neighbours offering them places to stay.

Mop-up operations continued this morning, the Kouga municipality said.

“Firefighters were sent home to sleep at about 4am after having extinguished the fire at the St Francis canals,” said spokeswoman Laura-Leigh Randall.

“Firefighters from the Cacadu district municipality are still at the scene monitoring the situation.”

“Before midnight night, the fire was half extinguished and not an immediate threat to other houses.

“The flames were fanned by a strong westerly wind. Ten fire engines had been brought in and more were called from the Nelson Mandela Bay and Koukamma municipalities, Randall said.

“The cause of the fire is not known, but the fire started at about 5.30pm at Royal Wharf developments, which is mainly townhouses,” she said.

All residents in the area had been asked to evacuate, and a temporary joint operations centre had been set up at the local police station.

Most of the houses in the area were holiday homes. The exact number of houses burnt down was not available.

“No final figures on the damage yet... We will be doing the damage assessment today ,” she added.

Two residents interviewed by the Cape Argus on Monday explained the extent of the fire, which ravaged houses on St Francis Bay’s picturesque canals.

Estate agent Richard Arderne said: “It began as a small fire but turned into a nightmare for homeowners in the fire’s path.

“Fortunately, the fire burned in a due easterly direction, which meant it ran out of land when it hit the ocean.

“It’s a tragedy for many - but, mercifully, most of St Francis Bay remained untouched.”

He said that around 450 houses stood on around 500 erven on the canals - of which he estimated that around 60 to 70 had been badly burned.

Petrea Donnelly, a guest house owner, agreed: “What happened is tragic. And while we feel for the homeowners... we are still set for a bumper summer season, because the fire was restricted to a particular area.”

Cape Argus

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