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Daily News: Fire, rain hit SA

Fire, rain hit SA
Storms and bush blazes ravage the country

September 01, 2008 Edition 3

Daily News Reporters

More than three quarters of KwaZulu-Natal was affected by runaway fires this weekend, according to the MEC for Social Welfare, Meshack Radebe.

Speaking in Nkandla today, Radebe said fires and strong winds in the province claimed 17 lives and left hundreds homeless.

Most of the people who died yesterday were pensioners and children.

Today a team of KwaZulu-Natal’s cabinet ministers, including Premier S’bu Ndebele and Radebe, criss-crossed the province to witness for themselves the extent of the damage.

During the visit, Radebe was told that 13 people had died in Melmoth and four in Nkandla, and that 150 homesteads had been destroyed by fires.

“According to the information that we have at the moment, almost 75% of the province was on fire yesterday. We strongly believe that before the end of the day that figure will rise as more and more people report incidents,” said Radebe.

Ndebele’s office reported that the premier would announce measures to ease the plight of those affected.

Premier Ndebele has also conveyed his condolences to the families of those who lost their lives as a result of the fires and wish those injured a speedy recovery,” read a statement issued to the media.

Fires were also reported in different parts of the Free State, while heavy storms battered Cape Town and surrounding areas, causing widespread disruption ranging from power outages to flooding.

EMRS in KwaZulu-Natal said it had transported 25 patients to various hospitals, primarily in the uThungulu district, which includes the municipalities of uMhlathuze (Richards Bay), uMlalazi, Nkandla, Mbonambi, Ntambanana and Mthonjaneni (Melmoth).

Fires were also reported to have ravaged the Sisonke district (Kokstad), but EMRS said there were no fatalities.

Operations manager for Rural Metro, Dave Whitaker, said the wind had died down overnight, allowing firefighters to gain the upper hand.

He said it was still too early to estimate the damage caused in the uThungulu district.

Melmoth Protection Services officer, Derek Horne, said fires in the area had been brought under control in the early hours of today.

The smoke had abated and there was a cold wind in the area.

Last night motorists had been warned to avoid using the R66 and R34 roads.

Horne said the warning had been lifted and there were no fires near these roads.

Police spokeswoman Dir Phindile Radebe said yesterday she could confirm the deaths of two people – an 85-year-old man and his 58-year-old wife – in the Madesheni area near Nkandla.

One of the victims in Nkandla was the six-year-old daughter of Chief Bhekumuzi Zuma, a nephew of ANC president Jacob Zuma.

SABC news reported last night that the child was killed after being hit by a sheet of corrugated iron, which was ripped off during a windstorm at the chief’s homestead at Nkandla.

On Saturday night, the region’s only firefighting plane crashed near Babanango soon after take-off, killing the pilot.

Several fires were reported to have ravaged the Drakensberg area, but no casualties were reported.

Farmers in the Free State say 15 000 hectares were destroyed in a runaway veld fire between Bethlehem and Warden.

Mop-up operations started in Cape Town this morning after heavy storms at the weekend.

“There are still reports of minor localised flooding,” said disaster management spokesman Wilfred Solomons- Johannes, adding that light rain had continued to fall.

Most roads had been cleared after gale force winds and heavy rains battered the province.

“It played havoc with the electricity supply,” he said, adding that an increased demand for electricity and trees toppling power lines had caused outages.

Another cold front had been forecast for the coming weekend, Solomons-Johannes added.

In Sea Cow Lake, Durban, a blaze left about 70 families displaced. Among them was an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

The fire is believed to have been caused by a paraffin stove that was left unattended while a shack dweller had gone to fetch water.

Steven Kweyama, a community leader in the area, said many shacks had caught alight because they were too close to one another.

Kweyama said the effects of the fire were devastating because most of the shack dwellers were left with only what they were wearing.

Shack dwellers in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Clare Estate were affected.

Alfred Newman, divisional commander of eThekwini Fire and Emergency Services, said the fire was hostile and five hose lines were used to extinguish it.

Traffic and smoke warnings were also issued to motorists travelling near regions affected by the fires at the weekend.

Spokeswoman for the Department of Transport Nonkuleleko Mbatha said on Saturday smoke from a nearby veld fire also caused a 10-car pile-up between Cato Ridge and Camperdown.

Mbatha said it was imperative for motorists to be alert and use some sort of signal to identify themselves to the drivers in front of or behind them.

“On Saturday, as a result of veld fires in the area, there was dense smoke on the roads and visibility was poor.

“This caused the accidents. Thankfully, no one was killed and only two people were critically injured,” she said.

Weather forecaster Colin Anderson said the strongest winds at the weekend were noted in the Vryheid/Newcastle area.

He said people in KwaZulu-Natal could expect a windy week, with dry conditions as humidity was fairly low.