Reflections on the fire- lessons from the Salamandar that ate the forest

I found myself driving up an unfamiliar road today. It lead into the forest. Burnt trees loomed up ahead and there was a road sign which said: “Disaster area, no entry.” Initially I wondered if there was another disaster, having been put on high alert by the fairly recent trauma of the big Cape Fires. Then I realized it was just that it was still a disaster area. This was a popular picnic spot in the Tokai forest, which was now barred from the public along with many mountain trails, now burnt and vulnerable to foot traffic – like exposed skin. Although green shoots are popping up. Nature is healing herself. Death and renewal are the cycles of life, yet the wound is still raw. That fire was a very real wake up call for those of us who frequent the leafy suburbs of the Table Mountain park and beyond. Yet I am not convinced that its real lesson was truely heard. At the height of the catastrophe, a consciousness was raised, which has been forgotten by most of us, for which life went back to normal after the fire. But for those who lived on that Zwaanswyk road, the one I was on in the Tokai forest, life has changed forever since their houses burned down. Their journey of renewal and transformation must be very intense.

View from our

What we saw from our windows: A fire began on the mountains above our seaside town one Sunday morning. By sunrise four helicopters were attempting douse the flames with their hanging buckets, the South Easter wind was howling. Then the helicopters disappeared but flames kept creeping down the slopes. We heard rumors that the fire had blown over into the next valley and was traveling fast. Perhaps the fire crews went there? For the rest of that day we watched the fire burning on our Muizenberg mountain. At night, we watched from our lounge window the flames making a beautiful, frightening display, and the show went on for 4 days. The South Easter wind, fanning the flames onto the dry Fynbos and wooded slopes. By the 4th day, it had eaten 5000ha of the Table Mountain park and we in the town were experiencing a state of emergency. Or a state of emergence: an awakening.

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This fire is good.” Said my wise daughter, aged 11 as we edged through the crazy siren filled traffic jams on the way home from school-trying to concentrate on the road and catch glimpses how much closer the flames were creeping to the houses while the smoke black out the sun. “It will bring people together and they will plant seeds to make the flowers grow again.” She mused. She painted a beautiful picture that day of the elements of fire and water regenerating the plant life. She said it came from the dream. It was a thank you letter to the fire.

Thank you for the fire.

Thank you for the fire.

Pockets of strangers united as humanity awestruck by the formidable power of nature as the monstrous fire rampaged down the mountain licking its lips, swallowing whole trees and belching smoke.

Watching the fire

By day we had lived under a dirty yellow sun, obscured by the cloud of smoke that hung over the city. The scene was apocalyptic. The river and sea were covered in ash, floating skeletons of leaves on the surface washing up with the tide. And the army helicopters rose up from the lake dragging their watery ammunition in this war against nature.

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We stood helplessly together and watched. We needed to comfort each other. At the height of the flames, one night late, I stood with a group of strangers and we shared the experience. They were a “ Cape coloured” family from Steenberg but they spoke in English for my benefit. Together, we watched our beloved mountain burn: aching for the loss of forest glens, the secret lily crags, the ancient indigenous Yellow Wood trees. It was like watching the death of a mutual friend. We stood together and gasped as this Fire dragon, a wild Salamander, a serpent of flame came dancing beautifully towards us in the dark, we could even hear its breath as the fire roared across the valley. Then, it seemed, the houses started. (I discovered later that these were only big trees, but at the time we thought they were houses going up.) We watched the blue lights of police cars race up the hill to join the red lights of the fire trucks as we stood safely on the banks of the river in the dark watching the spectacle

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The pollution!” Said the son, as thick black bellows of smoke rose up. “You worried about the pollution?” Marveled the daughter disapprovingly. “Think about the animals! And the people!” “But the pollution is what could have caused this fire in the first place. “ I blurted out, feeling emotional, and started to explain about the predictions of scientists that warned that too much C02 would cause the green house effect (also known as global warming) and that researchers warned that one of the consequences of the warming would be runaway fires and the desertification of the Western Cape due to drought. “We didn’t think we would be effected so soon.” I stressed, realizing as I spoke that this doomful prophecy may already be upon us, “but when the ice-caps melt and the forests burn it becomes a vicious cycle and it speeds up.” “It’s the feedback mechanism. It’s exponential,” agreed another passerby shaking his head. We were warned that things would get bad by 2015 if we did not change our ways and tread more lightly on the earth. “It has been predicted by scientists all over the world, who have been warning us for years.” I explained. The green house effect created by too much polluting Co2 causes extreme temperatures which triggers fires, which create lots of smoke and more Co2. That’s when climate change goes exponential. It’s hard to take any of this seriously when reading the theory, but when nature shows her power and our lives and homes are threatened, priorities change

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A traumatized teenaged girl and her solemn mother sat on the fence of the park watching the fire creep down. “Perhaps I could go and sit in the ambulances and nurse the people. They need people to do that don’t they? “ She asked her mother. “I have to do something to help. I can’t stand feeling so helpless.” She lamented. Everything looks different when ones environment is threatened so visibly. There is a shift of perception, and we see new ways of surviving. We remember the new and ancient story. The way the bushmen lived lightly -that’s what we have to do to be more careful. Tune into our higher senses. Become aware of our environment, like an alerted wild animal pricking up its ears. Become aware of each other, our fellow creatures, our community. We step out of our self-centered agenda.

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For a week the sound of helicopters and sirens were a constant background drone. We searched the web- the social media pages, for information about where the fire was now, we asked strangers in the street what they knew. Strangers passing in their cars in the traffic looked deeply into each others eyes, caught glimpses of each others humanity and wondered if each other were affected. If their houses were safe and if they had been evicted. Whole neighbourhoods were evicted. Exhausted mothers councilled each other in the school grounds over the ordeal. Then one day the children were sent home from school because the smoke was too thick and the heat too strong.

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I had to counsel my youngest daughter at bed- time, as she got wind of my fear the school may not still be there the next morning. (She voiced her concerns about what she most feared would be lost if the fire did burn the school. It was her school books and her art. They were given new value.)

Catching the floating ash

Catching the floating ash

Fire stress

People raised money and bought food and water to help the fire fighters. They volunteered at the fire station, making them tea. To transform the anxiety, many of us would do anything to help. Anything to feel less helpless: heroes emerged, as did victims. There were photo’s on facebook of the brave fire men, running through the flames with their hoses. Some were wounded, the helicopter squadron leader was killed when his chopper crashed. The whole city wept for him and his family. Others searched for someone to blame. “Who would do this?” They asked, traumatized.  Arsonists were suspected.

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Then it was over. The sirens stopped. We were left with pictures and a burnt mountainside. A few people were left homeless and for a short while, people fussed over them, sending them gifts, grateful it had not happened to them. There was the old lady in the upmarket leafy suburbs of Constantia, who was pictured in the newspapers in her nighty, sitting on the burnt foundations of her house. And there was the friend on Facebook who wrote: “The Fire got the house!” And then posted pictures of his beautiful wooden home in the forest in its heyday with hammocks and braai’s and now – a grey pile of rubble. There was also the family from our school who lost their home in the middle of the night. When I offered my condolences,  Diana-the owner- said: “When I wake up in the middle of the night, I have this horrible feeling like something really bad has happened- like a death.  And then I remember. We have been so grateful for the support of the community. We feel their support and it has got us through this.” She said gratefully and humbly

. Trauma

Those who lost their houses and for the survivors of the helicopter pilot, life will never be the same again. But for the rest of us, when the fire was put out, life just went back to normal.

“People have already forgotten.” Said the wise old Somalian woman I met on the path the day after the fire. “But what was the message of that fire? What was God trying to tell us?” She asked. “It was so big.” I said. “Those helicopters seemed so small.” “Yes.” She laughed. “What were those people doing?” she giggled. “It was a joke!” (I had to agree. It looked like fleas spitting at a monster, the scale of the fire in relation to the little helicopters with their buckets of water. Man against nature.)

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I told her what my daughter had said – that the fire would bring the people together to plant new seeds. She loved that. “Yes.” She smiled. “Sometimes we have to listen to the wisdom of the children. Thank you for telling me what she said.” And she went on her way with one grand child on her back and the other toddling beside her. Family and Community? Was that the gift of the fire? Finding out that in the face of danger, all boundaries vanished and strangers became family. One big human family, helping each other survive. Fighting fire to rescue one another’s homes. Doing it for a higher cause. Not for money or reward. Most of the firefighters worked night and day, risking life and limb as volunteers. Why don’t we do that more often? According to an international panel of scientists (Gondwana Alive) the earth is in the middle of the 6th extinction known to man, it’s just less obvious on a day to day basis. Yet no matter how much we try to deny it, we are all affected by our environment and our environment is affected by us.

Ash on the tide

Ash on the tide

After the fire, driving along the roads, inspecting the blackened mountain side. One can see that they did stop the fire just before it got to the town in most places. But now the autumn winds blow and a few soft gentle rains have fallen. “Aliens come up first. “ Says Botanist, David Gwynn Evans, so there are work parties going out to help pull out the weeds.” It’s just like in my daughters dream that the fire would bring people together to tend to the plants on the mountain. (He calls them the Firetrekkers. We will find out more about that soon.) Since then the community has had to face a new threat- which has brought people together over fear. It’s called Xenophobia. Fear of aliens. Not alien plants, or aliens from outer space, “aliens” from other countries in Africa. There has been some terrible violent images posted in the media pages. (Is it intimidation?) Although it has not officially reached Cape Town this time, it has sparked flames of debate, for some it creates hate, for others shame and for many, flames of fear and insecurity. I saw my neighbour again in the park. My wise friend from Somalia. “How are you my friend?” She calls to me. We look at each other knowingly. “Things (have been tough but) -they are getting better.” I admit, it has been depressing. “Yes, things are getting better.” She smiles, “The children were sick. But now we have medicine.” We comfort each other. “The rain fell softly and now the grass is growing again on the mountain.” She observes. “Yes, it will hold the topsoil down so that when the winter rains come, everything will be alright.” We just have to be grateful that we are still alright. All we can do is breathe deep and chant quietly: I am sorry, please forgive me, I love you, and thank you, and move on.

Words by Helena Kingwill Pictures by Helena Kingwill Zia Kingwill-Cloete and Jamie Cloete Copyright.

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