Chasing Fires in Somerset West (3 January 2017)

At lunch time on Tuesday I left the house to pick up my girlfriend, but as I opened the front door I was greeted with flames whipping into the air on top of Rome Glen, which is just about 2 kilometers to my east. Fires are usually pretty common in summer around the area, but this one was directly threatening luxury homes along the hill side and there were numerous choppers and spotting planes in the sky already. I quickly ran inside and grabbed my camera equipment, taking along my Canon 400mm L 5.6 and my Canon 50mm 1.8 lenses.

By the time I arrived at Rome Glen, there were dozens of people lining the streets looking to get a view of the fire which was threatening many of their homes. Thankfully no one was obstructing the fire trucks and emergency vehicles which were moving in and out of the area. The fire was burning near or in the Boskloof Estate at the top of Rome Glen and was rapidly moving down the north west side of the hill, fanned by extremely strong winds. The helicopters and planes were bombing the fires as regularly as they could and were doing a good job at keeping the fire line just behind the houses.

Somerset West Fire Rome Glen

Somerset West Fire Rome Glen
Vicious flames at Rome Glen, just meters from some of the houses on the hillside.
Somerset West Fire Rome Glen
Rome Glen neighbourhood managing to escape the fire, even though it had pushed right to the boundary of the houses.
Somerset West Fire Rome Glen
A helicopter works in tandem with the planes at preventing the fires from spreading down in the Morgenster Estate

Somerset West Fire Rome Glen

Multiple Fires in Close Proximity

While at Rome Glen, I noticed a new fire down the bottom of the hill towards Radlof Park side. It seemed that a lot more of the aerial focus turned in that direction, with the Rome Glen fire seemingly more under control. I wasn’t sure whether the fire at the bottom of the hill was a separate incident or whether it was caused by embers that had traveled downwards and started a new fire.

I quickly ran back to my car and repositioned myself down at Radlof Park. On route, I received a text from a family member saying that my aunt, who lives in Gordon Road opposite the river near Radlof Park was told to get ready for potential evacuation.

Once at Radlof, the flames had progressed to within 50 or so meters of the river and had already done significant damage to what I believe is the Morgenster Estate with people reporting that there had been a house on the property that had burnt in the process. The sky was now becoming thick with smoke, and through communication with fellow weather enthusiast Gordon Richardson I heard that the plume of smoke had already traveled from Somerset West, past Cape Point.

Somerset West Fire Radlof
Residents watch from the river at Radlof park to see if they can get some insight on the situation
Somerset West Fire Radlof
Light filters through the trees as smoke pushing in
Somerset West Fire Radlof
Police walk around ensuring that no one is attempting to get closer than they should, and are not crossing the river

Community members gathered alongside the river, occasionally being pushed back by those enforcing public safety measures along the area. The flames would wax and wane just behind the trees blocking our view by the river.

We stayed photographing and watching the fire at Radlof for a number of hours, but left at around 17:30 when things seemed to have gotten under control. Upon leaving, we noticed that another massive fire, now much larger than the Morgenster or Rome Glen fire seemed to be spreading. It was hard to get good visuals on the location of the fire, but it appeared to be the fire near Sir Lowry’s Pass which was rapidly spreading and moving in the direction of Vergelegen Farm.

Somerset West Fire View
The view looking towards Strand in the late afternoon, as seen from the top of Irene.

A Flare Up

About an hour after I had headed home I got a call from my cousin, saying that things had flared up again at Radlof and that the fire was now right against the river, threatening the houses on the other side. I once again grabbed my camera and rushed down. The streets were lit with emergency lights, police posted at each stop street and traffic circle in the area. I managed to park near the cricket club and went down to the river for a better view. By the time I got there the fire department had things under control again, there was burning just meters from the river, but there was a fire truck present with firefighters battling the blaze.

Somerset West Fire Radlof

Somerset West Fire Radlof
The fire managed to spread right down to the river
Somerset West Fire Radlof
Fire fighters at Radlof Park work on extinguishing the final few flames as the day draws to a close.
Fire Sun
Thick smoke turned a late afternoon sun into a glowing red ball

Community members were doing their part by bringing food and drinks to the fire fighters, attempting to make their lives a bit easier during the battle.

I then received news later in the evening, after getting back home – that there was also a fire at the Radlof Park cricket club. It’s likely that this was caused by a loose ember being blown into the dry grass that surrounds the club.

A New Threat

By 22:00 in the evening, the Radlof fire had taken a back seat to the now raging fire which had progressed from Sir Lowry’s Pass and was now threatening houses near Vergelegen.

The third drive down saw my on route with numerous cars speeding with their horse trailers attached. Horses, cows and sheep were at risk and were being evacuated, along with several areas of housing. The winds continued to rage well into the night, though had dropped to much lower levels in the early hours of the morning.

Fire at Night in Somerset West

Fire at Night in Somerset West
The night sky was lit in the distance by the glow of flames towards Vergelegen and Lourensford

During my 22:00 drive, I drove up to a vantage point and looked out over the town, occasionally the smoke would give way to a visual of flames that lined an area from one side of the town to the other. It must have been extremely difficult for those fighting the fires to spread themselves over such a large area of active burning.

Today, January 4th – things seem a bit better with the winds a fraction of what they were yesterday. But the fire(s) continue to burn. There have been several confirmed reports of houses burning down, including the Bizweni Lodge, a well recognized guest house in the area.

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