It has always been known that Sedgefielders pull together in a crisis - but in the last week the community more than outdid themselves, with hundreds of local volunteers building up a phenomenal effort to support fire crews, house evacuees and provide for those who have lost homes and possessions.
When Sedgefield awoke on Wednesday morning, most residents were preparing for the onslaught of stormy weather. The Education Department had declared that all schools in the Western Cape stay closed, and the hope was that along with the extreme conditions a fair amount of rain would arrive.
But things turned out way differently. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, two fires started, one in Elandskraal and one in Kruisfontein, closer to Knysna.
The alarm was raised, and local fire services deployed, but with North West berg winds pumping relentlessly, conditions were perfect for the wildfires, and it wasn’t long before they blazed out of control.
As flames spread from valley to hilltop, more and more areas were calling for assistance, and soon evacuations had to be initiated.
Sedgefield Tourism Manager Belinda Hobson had already started a collection point at her office, but when she heard that people from Elandskraal and Rheenendal had lost their homes and Belvidere and Brenton were facing evacuation, she quickly organised the Town Hall to be opened. Her next step was to meet with Ratepayers Safety & Security Member Mike Hofhuis and Community Policing leader Michael Simons, to initiate a co-ordinated effort to support the fire crews and assist in the evacuation of danger areas.
By this time the road between Knysna and Sedgefield was closed, and with homes in Brenton and Belvidere burning, residents of those suburbs had no choice but to start walking along the beach to Buffalo Bay.
As quite a number of these people were elderly, and some quite frail, Richard Meyer of Knysna Municipality’s
Disaster Management called on Mario Ferreira to assist ferrying them with his 4x4 vehicle, and he in turn contacted others for help. Soon he was co-ordinating a sizeable rescue mission.
“We ended up with 30 4x4 vehicles, even from as far off as Mossel Bay,” said Ferreira, “But we needed them. We ran from midday Wednesday to 3am the following morning, moving between 400 and 500 people AND their pets.”
As the evacuees started arriving in Buffalo Bay, restaurant owners Lourenza and Peter Grace opened their doors to give the somewhat shell-shocked folk somewhere comfortable to await transportation to Sedgefield. This, of course, was dependent on the N2 being safe.
Whilst all this was happening Families from Fairview and Elandskraal had already started arriving in Sedge, and sleeping space was set up for them at the Town Hall. Sedge Christian Church and the Sedgefield School Hall also set up in anticipation of the evacuated people.
Later that evening, when the N2 was deemed a bit safer, the Traffic Department started allowing limited vehicles through. And so the fetching and carrying commenced. The Belvidere and Brenton residents starting arriving in Sedgefield in increasing numbers.
Michael and Belinda had already put the word out that accommodation might be needed in private homes, and were more than impressed with the generous response from local residents. Special mention must be made of Pine Lake Marina Resort, where 110 people were accommodated free of charge.
“It was extremely chaotic,” said Michael, “There were families that had been separated, some very frail people with oxygen tanks, and that’s aside from the dogs, cats and birds!” He was grateful to have Dr JC Venter who generously gave of his time, offering medical assistance where necessary. Six people who were in need of frail care were put up in ‘Hug House’, Masithandane’s Care & Respite Centre.
“And we made sure everyone was fed before they went to sleep,” said Michael.
The next day some of the evacuees were able to return home, once they had been informed that their properties had not been badly affected by the fires.
The team assisted where transport was needed, and made sure those in need were given food parcels and clothing.
The Town Hall was closed on Thursday night, but when it became clear by early the following morning that the fires were continuing unabated, Belinda and Michael met with Mario and a visitor Patrick Walton, who had logistical skills to offer, to look at the way forward as far as crisis management was concerned.
As a result of their discussion, they reopened the Town Hall, this time as a storage and distribution centre for fire relief.
“Fires were still flaring up, the roads to Knysna were closed on either side most of the time, so it made sense to have this set up in Sedgefield,” said Michael.
Gary Atkinson, another COP member, was seconded onto the team, and the Town Hall also became the base from which Sedgefield residents kept in communication with the fire front and the Joint Operations Centre in Knysna. Michael started broadcasting type and voice messages via social media, to keep locals up to date on the fire situation and reassure them when it seemed the flames were on the way over the dune.
With so much false information being bandied about, often inadvertently, by members of the public, Michael soon became recognised as the only ‘voice of truth’. This did wonders to quell any mass hysteria, which would only have put more pressure on emergency services.
The steady stream of volunteers which had started arriving on Wednesday continued to grow.
With fires burning close to Fairview, the area was once again evacuated and the Sedgefield School Hall as opened up to accommodate the evacuees.
That night, after finishing at the Town Hall at 2am, Gary worked a relief shift at the fire station. At 3.45am he alerted Michael:- a huge blaze had flared up on both sides of the N2, at Goukamma Reserve on one side and Fairview on the other. Firefighters were on the scene, battling the blaze, but this was the start of a stressful day for Sedgefield - with flames and billowing smoke ever-present on the horizon.
Whilst volunteers worked tirelessly, albeit with one eye on the eastern horizon, Michael and Mario went to assess the blaze
“Things looked too close for comfort,” said Michael, “But fortunately the wind was blowing north west, - away from Sedgefield, keeping the fire at bay.”
In the evening the Knysna Incident Management Team took the strategic decision to initiate a back-burn on the Goukamma Reserve. As it was dark, the blaze looked horrifyingly close, but fortunately the plan worked well and Sedgefield was once again deemed out of danger.
Since then there have been flare-ups here and there, but the fires have been contained and controlled.
The volunteer teams continue to work tirelessly at the Town Hall relief centre, some through the night, in efforts to sort, pack and redistribute the tons and tons of relief goods arriving from all over the country. The hall is bursting with food, clothing and volunteers, as is the old African Affair building and several rooms and halls kindly offered by churches and businesses.
“It’s amazing how a community can put all differences aside to help people in need,” said Michael.