Students evacuate Cape Town university as fire damages historic buildings | South Africa

A wildfire raging on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain has spread to the University of Cape Town, burning the historic campus library and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 students.

Orange flames lit up the windows of the library, which houses considerable archives and book collections while firefighters sprayed jets of water to douse the blaze.

The reading room at the university’s historic Jagger library was “gutted” according to UCT Library executive director Ujala Satgoor, but the fire detection system was triggered, “preventing the spread of the fire to other parts of the library.” Some valuable collections had been lost, she said.

Other campus buildings also caught fire, and a historic windmill nearby burned. The thatch-roofed Mostert’s Mill, built in 1796, is the country’s oldest working windmill.

The historic Mostert’s Mill smoulders as firefighters battle to contain a fire, in Cape Town
The historic Mostert’s Mill smoulders as firefighters battle to contain a fire, in Cape Town
Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Just off-campus on the slopes of Table Mountain, wind spread the flames across dry brush, and part of the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant caught fire, Cape Town media reported. SANParks, which runs Table Mountain national park, said it believed that the fire had been started accidentally by a homeless person.

Dan Plato, mayor of the City of Cape Town, said, “It is tragic that literary treasures have been lost at the UCT library, but I have been informed that some of the most valuable works were saved by the quick activation of roller doors. Our attention and support remains with firefighters and all role players working to protect further loss of property.”

More than 100 firefighters and emergency personnel were deployed to the university campus and to Table Mountain national park. Four helicopters were being used to drop water on threatened areas, officials said.

One firefighter was injured and being treated at a hospital, according to the Cape Town fire and rescue department.

Table Mountain national park fire manager Philip Prins said in a statement that the fire had spread particularly rapidly because of the mountain’s “very old pine trees and their debris. The fire created its own wind that further increased the rate of spread”.

“The excessive amount of smoke and related updrafts made it impossible for the aerial support to slow the spread.”

Residents have been cautioned to be on alert, Charlotte Powell, spokesperson for the city’s disaster risk management centre, said in a statement.

“At this stage, there’s no cause to evacuate, but we ask that residents adhere to the following: close all windows to prevent draft and reduce heat, damp down your garden using a hose or irrigation system,” Powell said.

Helicopters battle a bushfire that broke out on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town
Helicopters battle a bushfire that broke out on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Images of library buildings burning from the inside alarmed students, academics, writers and artists – some of whom have stored archival materials in the libraries.

Satgoor said that despite the fire detection system protecting much of the library, “some of our valuable collections have been lost, however a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe”.

“I write this message with a deep sense of sorrow and devastation at the loss,” Satgoor wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “Some of us watched, from on site, with horror and helplessness this elegant and historical library burn”. A restoration of the Jagger reading room began in 2011, according to the library’s website.

The Jagger library houses the university’s Special Collections library, which houses priceless archival material, including rare books, manuscripts, photographs and documents such as anti-Apartheid pamphlets. Some of these have been digitised.

Table Mountain national park called on social media for hikers to leave the area and for motorists to remove cars parked in the vicinity.

A first alert went up shortly before 9am (0700 GMT), city authorities said.

Three helicopters joined the fight, dumping water on the inferno, they added.

The University’s vice-chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, said in a statement that “all academic activities will be suspended [Monday] and on Tuesday”. Food and accommodation had been provided for all evacuated students, she said, and arrangements had been made to accommodate Muslim students, who are fasting for Ramadan.

Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report

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