Fight after the flames

Two residents look out at the devastation caused by the fire which destroyed over 300 homes.

While nobody was injured, Overcome Heights families are still trying to pick up the pieces after a devastating fire left them homeless last week.

Over 300 shacks were razed when the fire broke out on Thursday October 25, at about 5.30pm, leaving the shocked residents with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Organisations, companies and volunteers have been rallying to assist the 842 fire victims by donating water, food, clothing and other items.

The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) has also been deployed in the area to provide social relief.

The City’s disaster risk management, informal settlements and solid waste management departments have been assisting residents all over Cape Town. Overcome Heights was the last of three large fires last week with the others taking place in Khayelitsha and Philippi.

In Overcome Heights, 309 homes were affected – 293 were completed destroyed by the fire and 16 were partially destroyed.

Theo Layne, from the City’s Fire and Rescue services said the fire was caused by a short circuit in electrical wiring.

Eight fire engines, four water tankers, one rescue vehicle and other support vehicles with 56 firefighters were sent to douse the fire.

Overcome Heights committee member Tembisa Nduku, who lost her home, said the fire started from from her shack but got out of control quickly.

“The fire brigade were just standing and watching. They said there was no water. Then they said they couldn’t get access. It all happened so quickly and now many of us have nothing left. My heart is sore, my children must got to school, it’s exams and now we have to deal with this,” said Ms Nduku.

Zuziwe Mvumbi said she didn’t expect the fire to causeas much devastation as it had. It started in one corner and we didn’t know it was going to get to us because the firefighters were there. We didn’t have time to grab anything by the time the fire got to our home. We lost everything,” said Ms Mvumbi.

Mr Layne said the situation in Overcome Heights and fires at other informal settlements in Cape Town over the past week had posed a challenge for firefighters because of road access, water availability, illegal, overhead electrical connections, distances between shacks and hot, dry and windy climatic conditions.

On Friday October 26 the fire debris was cleared from the area. The Red Cross also assisted fire victims with accommodation and issued tents that were pitched on the nearby Sea Winds Sports Field.

After receiving emergency building kits from the the City, those affected could start rebuilding their homes. These kits include 25 zinc sheets; 14 fire treated wooden poles, nails, a door; door hinges; a window frame and a window.

Committee member Fouzia Cassiem said rebuilding in the same area would be counter-productive.

“Everyone is living on top of each other. Now they rebuild then the same thing will happen and people will lose everything again. We want to use the piece of land in front of the informal settlement that is currently being used for a smart park,”said Ms Cassiem.

Community worker Mymoena Scholtz concurred: “The City of Cape Town spent million of rands on a smart park and there’s a big piece of land dormant here next to the informal settlement.

“That money could have spent on housing which is a much bigger need in this community. We will continue to have these disasters if a proper plan is not put in place. There’s no humanity in living in such conditions.”

Human Settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela visited the area and spoke to residents a day after the fire and said a resettlement plan will be discussed.

“The plan is to overcome this. We have appealed to the community to talk about a resettlement plan that’s better than the previous situation, for example to have access roads.

“There needs to be a long-term plan. We, the department, have plans for development around this area – the greater Retreat development where residents from Retreat, Lavender Hill and other areas who qualify will be beneficiaries,” said Mr Madikizela.

Ward councillor Gerry Gordon said development at the informal settlement is not an option because it is located on road reserve.

“There will be development in other areas so we’ll go through the proper procedures and processes and be fair,” said Ms Gordon.

Asked if the situation could have been avoided, Mr Madikizela said; ”The population has grown unprecedented in Cape Town and there is an influx of people who are putting up shacks. We can only do so much with the available resources we have.

“In areas like this we have to find ways to resettle people in a way that will avoid similar occurrences in future and then they wait their turn to get a house but the reality is that not everyone will be able to get a house but we will assist them with their immediate needs like rebuilding kits”.

Residents are asked not to donate perishable items, especially bread, as there is no facility to store these items safely.

Donations may be dropped off at the Lakeside fire station.