Arson caused Table Mountain inferno – report

Advanced Wildfire Investigator Rob Erasmus from Enviro Wildfire speaking about his report.

An act of arson caused the Table Mountain inferno that swept from Rhodes Memorial to Devil’s Peak over three days in April, destroying homes, heritage landmarks and a UCT library.

This is according to a SANParks report released last Thursday at its Tokai headquarters. The report outlines the findings of wildfire investigator Rob Erasmus from Enviro Wildfire.

According to Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) manager Philip Prins, it cost R1.3 million to fight the fires. “It includes the helicopter cost which is over R900 000, while the rest of it was for transport and overtime for contract staff and Working on Fire staff,” he said.

More than 650 hectares of land in the park was burnt.

Mr Erasmus ruled out natural causes, such as rock falls or lightning strikes, and accidental negligence. Instead, he concluded that the fire was started with malicious intent in the park, at about 8.40am on Sunday April 18

CCTV cameras had recorded a white vehicle turning slowly off the shoulder of the Nelson Mandela Boulevard near the ignition point about four minutes before the fire started, he said. According to the report, the fire’s origin was in a section of the park on Hospital Bend close to Philip Kgosana Drive.

Mr Erasmus said an object had been thrown from the car.

Mr Erasmus said footage of the car leaving the area would not be made public at this stage. “If we run out of options, we would consider it,” he said.

The make and model of the vehicle have not been made public, but investigators are asking anyone who might have seen something suspicious in the vicinity, to come forward.

SANParks is offering a R10 000 to anyone who can help to identify the vehicle.

With regards to the second fire started on Sunday evening around 8.35pm in the vicinity of Philip Kgosana Drive, a 35-year-old male was arrested that same evening. Mr Erasmus says that investigation was ongoing.

“We have interviewed the alleged suspect more than once, and his version and the version of events we investigated do not add up,” he said.

Frederick Mhangazo appeared in the Cape Town Regional Court on Tuesday April 20 on a charge of arson (“Counting the cost of the Table Mountain firestorm,” Southern Suburbs Tatler, April 22). However, this charge was later withdrawn.

Mr Erasmus said Mr Mhangazo could be charged under the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, National Environment Management Act (NEMA) under City by-laws and National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said he was currently out on R500 bail.

“The defence asked the court to grant the State the postponement they requested until Friday July 2 but it must be the last postponement,” he said.

Mr Ntabazalila added that Mr Mhangazo had been charged with lighting or causing an open fire without proper authority. According to the court document if he is found guilty he could be liable for imprisonment of up to five years.

SANParks acting CEO Dr Luthando Dziba said the fires could have been much worse had it not been for partnerships with the City of Cape Town, Enviro Wildlife, Working on Fire, Volunteers Wildfire Services and the SANDF. “A total of five firefighters got injured in fighting these fires and these men and women acted in the best interest of the community despite the extremely grim weather conditions, and they did so at their own risk to their welfare and safety,” he said.

The 225-year-old Mostert’s Mill was gutted in the fire. John Hammer, chairman of Friends of Mostert’s Mill (FOMM) said they had so far raised R500 000 of the approximately R3 million rand needed to restore the mill to its former glory. Visit to find out more about the project.

UCT spokesman Elijah Moholola said full repairs to Jagger Library could take up to two years. “The university made progress in recovering the archives from the Jagger basements,” he said. “Almost 10 000 items are in cold storage as part of the rehabilitation process for water-damaged materials, while 12 900 crates were filled with materials to minimise handling during their removal from the basements.”

He added: “In addition to removing vegetation and compost from campus property, the university has worked closely with SANParks to remove trees that fell during the fire, while also protecting against soil shift and the possibility of mudslides when the winter rains arrive.”

Dr Dziba said SANParks would continue to assess its programmes to control invasive alien vegetation, manage fire breaks and stop people starting fires. “Overall, we need to review our alien vegetation programme and fire management programme and we will commission studies to better understand how a large national park interfaces with an urban area.”

JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, said while in most cases, there was a human element involved in the cause of big fires, usually this was not intentional. However, he said, “in this case it was done maliciously.”

Email or call 083 411 3378 if you have information that can lead to the arrest of those responsible for starting the fire.

Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith speaking at the release of the report.
The damaged caused to UCT’s Jagger Library.