Remembering the 7th June, 2017.

“Scores of people were evacuated from their homes in Knysna as a fire threatens property in the Garden Route town. A section of the N2 between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay was closed to traffic as the fire is burning on both sides of the road.

The first fire, which broke out near Plettenberg Bay on Tuesday night, was contained but there is another fire burning in a vast area close to Rheenendal. Strong winds are pushing the flames towards homes in Belvidere, Breonton-on-Sea and Rheenendal. Knysna Fire Chief Clint Manuel says crews are trying to get as many people away from danger.

“We have evacuated the entire Belvidere and some people have come out, but we are getting reports of some people still on the inside. We are still trying to get them out and we are also trying to get them to the jetty where the NSRI can also pick them up.”

Resident Richard Wallis says the situation is really bad. “Knysna is in perpetual darkness. It’s a disaster here. It’s crazy. Some people are fire-locked. They have water on the one side and the fire on the mountains on the other side. It’s really bad.”

At the same time, three people have been reported dead in an incident emergency services are linking to the strong winds brought in by the storm which continues to sweep through the Peninsula.

A farm worker and his wife and son are reported to have died in the area were fires fanned by Berg winds.”

These were some of the reports, but it is the pictures that tells the story. A story that will be etched in the memory of all who have been affected.  A story of trauma, a story of compassion, a story of communities getting together helping one another, a story of rebuilding and  of new hope.

On the 7th June, we were watching the fires encircling Knysna, but they seem to be a safe distance away … how wrong we were and how unprepared. We were totally unaware of the fire racing up the hill from  Salt river and Eastford,   the smoke was so dense that you could hardly see anything.  Only when the neighbours screamed that their house was on fire, the reality of the situation came home.  At that moment  the only thing on one’s mind was to find a safe place, away from the raging fire,  the stifling smoke and the incredible strong wind that was  whipping up fireballs. We evacuated at about 5.30 pm, not knowing what will happen. All we had with us were our phones, tablets and  a file which contained documents, and passports.  At that moment everything seemed to  trivial, all possessions become meaningless, only safety was a priority.  A kind of numbness enveloped one, a feeling of having an awful nightmare, that you will wake up and all will be well …..

We made our way down the hill with houses ablaze on both sides, fireballs were igniting tall palm trees that went up like  flaming torches.  Driving  was a nightmare as all the exit roads from Knysna were blocked.  Thesen Islands, Leisure Isle, The Quays and the Angling Club were safe havens for some folk to sleep the night, people also found safe places were they could parked along George Rex Drive, and Loerie Park.  We stayed with friends on Leisure Island,  grateful for a warm bed, food and compassion.

We left early the next morning before dawn.  The smoke was still hanging in a dense cloud over Knysna.  As we approached the Paradise hill destruction was seen everywhere, but nothing could prepare us for the apocalyptic scene that awaited us on the hill. It was like a scene from Alleppo, it looked like a war zone. There were once 26 homes in our stretch of  Ridge Drive, Paradise.   19 Homes were totally destroyed, 5 miraculously escaped destruction and 2 had partial destruction.  We were one of the lucky ones that escaped some of the fury of the fire as our main house was a little damaged, however the studio, garages, storage areas and gardens were totally gutted.

The stillness of the neighbourhood after the fire was eerie, the desaturated landscape ghost-like,  the thick smoke  stifling. The days that followed hundreds of onlookers drove up the roads, there were TV interviews, there were people offering help, there were opportunistic individuals preying on your confusion and desperation.

We opted to stay in the house despite no electricity, water, security or fencing. Looting was rife and we felt that we had to protect what we had left. We were totally reliant on good friends for our daily showers, many friends brought meals, and  people were incredibly kind.  It took four weeks to restore services, and  I can’t describe the joy of switching on a light, or opening a tap and there was water! One only realises how dependent we are on these essentials that make life so much easier, and how fortunate we are. There are so many folk that  never had the luxury of these amenities, and possibly never will. Life is very unfair ….

This is our story in pictures of the Great Fire of Knysna.

A few hours before the fire reached our house


The next day…
Fist-size molten security glass is all that remained of the once bi-fold doors. Security glass melts at 1400 – 1600C!

And now, one year later…

Drone image of the restored property