Dear friends of Hermanus Yacht Club
Many of you will have heard about the terrible fire that ripped through the valley between Hermanus & Stanford on the 29th of December 2012. We have had hundreds of messages from concerned sailors and friends as well as some great pledges of support. Many people don’t really know the detail so here goes…
On Christmas eve there was an electric storm and a bolt of lightning started a fire in the mountains of the Hemel & Aarde, way to the west of the Yacht Club and of no real consequence, or so we thought. On the 26th of December temperatures soared to over 40 degrees and the barometer fell unusually low for this time of the year. We woke up on the 27th and a strong north-westerly started blowing and the temperatures remained fairly high. As most locals will know this is not the prevailing wind for this time of the year. By midday on the 28th the fire that everyone hadn’t really taken too much notice of (including the authorities) fanned up and started steadily moving eastwards towards the Vogelgat Nature reserve. All day we watched as the wind gently moved it along the back of the Maanskyn Kop (the big mountain behind the club). Everyone seemed sure that the wind would change to South East and push the fire back on itself and ultimately lead to its extinction.
That evening some of us went to Stanford for an early meal with our kids and when we walked out of the restaurant we realised that the fire had come over the top of the mountain and was now descending towards the road on both the Western and Eastern slopes either side of the Yacht Club.
Many women decided to leave the club with their kids and head for home, a mild panic set-in although many of us thought this can’t get any worse. We set up a very informal watch on the jetty and some members started packing up and putting valuables into their cars and moving boats etc. down to the water’s edge on the hard. Many members decided to stay the night and duly went to bed, me included. Just before 3am I heard an urgent knock and was told the fire was now really close. I opened the door of my cabin and was shocked to see what looked like a very bright and beautiful sunset, the massive blue gums west of the club silhouetted against a very ominous orange sky… the flames were making their way towards us and I heard that the fire had now jumped the road and was heading along the lagoon edge as well as the entire line up to the top of the mountain. A decision was made to evacuate the club immediately and this was when things really kicked into action!
Over 200 people grabbed what they could and headed for Stanford. By now there was no way back to Hermanus as the fire was leaping across the road in several places and the fynbos was burning fiercely. About 10 members who could leave by boat remained and started removing trophies, paintings and Yacht Club memorabilia from the clubhouse and packed them safely into trailers left on the front lawn. We evacuated our manager, her dog and her parrot and prepared them for the worst. We also managed to get the contents of our safes as well as the club computer out of the office before my wife ordered me to “(let’s) get out here!” The fire was now starting to close in on the eastern side to0 and all we needed was for the road to Stanford to be cut off.
Stanford was packed with hundreds of people who had been rudely awakened whilst on holiday in all the developments along the lagoon’s edge. The Spar opened its doors and started serving free coffee! We then headed to Mosaic Farm (on the opposite side of the lagoon) to watch as the fire as it descended on the Club. You can imagine scores of tired holiday makers watching a scene out of Armageddon.
At 4.30 am I notified our Vice Commodore and another committee member who live in Hermanus of what was going on.
Our first stroke of luck occurred due to the fact that that when the fire struck the club, daylight had already broken, this meant that the fire choppers had just been dispatched and sent to the head of the fire. In the early light of day we could see them collecting and bombing tons of water onto the properties west of the club! For a while the entire area disappeared in a massive cloud of smoke … I thought this was the beginning of the end. I was in constant contact with the men left at the club and it did not sound good. We then headed to Stanford to get a bite to eat and a coffee, I tried to head back to the club only to be aggressively refused by the police manning the road block. By 8am I decided to head back to Cape Town (via Caledon) as I felt I could at least start to coordinate a plan and set up decent communications… at 10h25 my first email requesting urgent fire fighting assistance went out to all our members… in essence this was the message:
“THE DANGER IS BY NO MEANS OVER!! I APPEAL TO AS MANY OF YOU AS POSSIBLE TO GO TO THE CLUB AND HELP ENSURE THAT ALL SMALL SMOULDERING PATCHES ARE PROPERLY EXTINGUISHED…
Please call me on 082 4100 290 if you can offer assistance.”
What an incredible response we had, shortly after 11am we had a fighting force in place and they were doing an incredible job reinforcing the few who had been at the club throughout. One of our members managed to arrange to borrow some fire engines from the volunteer fire station at Newlands (which only opened at 1pm). By 2pm we were ready to depart (having had a quick lesson in fire-fighting) and off we set to Hermanus. Fully laden with water and all the tools, I followed the bright orange and yellow machine in a bakkie laden with pumps and extra fire hoses. We limped into the club at 4pm and everything seemed strangely under control. Within minutes of arriving I realised what a serious situation we were in, we had already lost our gate House, all our fencing, the entire water supply and many boats and caravans! More worrying though was a smouldering patch in the reeds directly west of the clubhouse near the water’s edge upwind of us on our neighbours property. The decision was made to head across with the fire truck and attempt to extinguish the potential source of disaster. By now the wind was gusting 30 knots and it was very very hot. And then the flames erupted. A secondary fire, strong wind, our fire truck trapped next door and a very weary team of men and women. Our only goal now was to wet and protect the boundary next to our clubhouse and managers cottage, at the same time two of our committee members were on the phone begging for fire engines and helicopter assistance only to be told, you have you own trucks now so you’re on your own. 20 minuted later we made the call to pull all men out of the front line as the flames were now too big and the fire was literally licking the walls of our managers house. .. it was all over, a dejected and resigned crowd of black-faced sailors headed onto the roof of the clubhouse to watch helplessly as the fire took on a life of its own.
Our prayers had been answered, out of the smoke appeared a yellow Huey chopper with the delightful red fire bucket hanging below. The sense of relief was tangible… who and how ? ..none of us are really too clear on the answer but all that mattered was that they were here at last! The first 5 tons of water was dropped perfectly onto the fire that was set to destroy our second house of the day! And then another familiar thudding sound and a second chopper appeared. To watch these two machines delicately navigate their buckets through the tall trees and accurately douse the raging fire was truly awesome. Then started the explosions as caravans and their gas bottles exploded…. This could have been Vietnam, the true experience cannot be captured on pictures or video. It was humbling to say the least. Simultaneously two proper fire engines arrived on loan from Caledon and Bredasdorp and they assured us they would not leave until all was under control. If we could have we would have closed and locked the gate! The SAPS also arrived and with bolt cutters started removing every gas bottle to safe areas to prevent further explosions.
A few hours later by nightfall, all the heroes of the day went away to sleep wherever they could get shelter and 4 of us remained awake at the club to see the night through. At least we had a fire engine of our own although the driver was fast asleep! Two others slept in the clubhouse so we could at least keep an eye on them in case another fire broke out. Our galley manager brought some food through so we could keep the two municipal fire engines and their crew enticed to stay a little longer. Eventually by 9pm they left. We promised all the SAPS and fire-fighters some Pizzas and after every take away pizza in Hermanus had been bought they were delivered by our Vice Commodore 2 hours late. Needless to say the pizzas, coke and cartons of cigarettes purchased stood on the tables with no one to consume them. We were on our own.
By 1am we noticed some concerning flare-ups all around us and two of us decided to go in search of some fire engines. 7 kilometres away we saw red lights and we came across two fire-engines filling up at a farm dam. These municipal fire-fighters looked like they were packing up for the night… with the promise of pizzas, coke and some cigarettes we managed to lure the big yellow machine with full tanks and a full crew back to the Yacht Club. We positioned them to extinguish some area of concern on our eastern boundary where we had lost a cabin, a caravan and several boats. Once in position we setup watch to ensure they never left and we plied them with delicious Pizza and coke. At 3 am the machine was dry and we let them escape. The worst was over!
At 7 .45 am on Sunday morning we held an emergency committee meeting and at 8 am our manager appeared and joined us, completely overwhelmed by the scene of destruction that met her eyes. Her home had been saved! An action plan was put into place and the recovery plan was set in motion. Even our electrician (on holiday) popped in at 6am and made safe all the bare wires on our western terraces. By late on the 30th we seemed to be under control and there was a jovial mood filtering back into the club. Slowly people started returning to check the damage and take responsibility for their property.
Sadly the stress of continual flare-ups persisted for many more days and nights and finally the 3rd of January was our last night of official watch. Every hour members patrolled in teams of two and by dawn on the 4th it was decided that we were essentially safe from the immediate threat if fire.
Last night (9th January) I visited the club and spent the night, whilst having dinner there was a flare-up on our eastern boundary on our neighbour’s property, within minutes we had the same yellow fire engine helping out. Just before they arrived it started raining and when I left Hermanus this morning there was a light but steady down pour. I think it is safe to say the fire is now under control.
This weekend we are having a members’ work weekend and we have had an overwhelming response. By next week the club will be back on its feet and ready to go sailing again!.
Once again thanks to all who helped us rescue our wonderful club and I am sorry for all those who lost so much personal property in the devastating fire.
We are ready to host the Southern Charter Grand Slam (event 3) on the 16/17th February. Please support us by making sure you enter and come and sail at what is one on the best weekend sailing venues in South Africa! We will also be hosting the Grand Slam Finals / Western Cape Champs to be held over the Easter weekend. Joining us at these events is the best support you can give your friends at Hermanus Yacht Club.
This was my personal account of the fire, I apologise if I have left out any relevant detail. To all who gave up very precious family time over the New Year period, you know who you are and on behalf of all members and the committee of HYC I thank you!
Please keep a look out on www.hyc.co.za we will post pictures of the fire within a day or two under the latest news button and to enter the Grand Slam Series, please go to http://sasgrandslam.co.za/?page_id=2