Picture by Andre Victor: A runaway fire swept through Beverley Hills in Smutsville last Wednesday, destroying homes and possessions but fortunately not taking any lives.
“There’s nothing as powerful as relationships, and the reason Sedgefield has been able to rise from the dreadful disaster of last week is the authentic relationships we have across our communities.”
These were the words of Ward 1 Councillor Levael Davis, as he and so many others dealt with the aftermath of the devastating fire that hit Smutsville on Wednesday, 30 August 2023.
It has been officially confirmed that 28 informal homes, four ‘backyard addition’ homes, and two formal (brick and mortar) homes were destroyed when the fire, fanned by the afternoon’s warm berg wind, raged through Beverley Hills. Its trail of destruction left 87 men, women and children homeless and, in most cases, with nothing to their names but the clothes on their backs.
Reportedly, the fire started when a stove on which youngsters were cooking their lunch somehow malfunctioned. Without running water to immediately douse the flames, there was nothing to stop the resultant fire from spreading at a rapid rate, and in no time, it was simply out of control.
At 14:45, the Sedgefield Fire Department received the first emergency call, and four firefighting vehicles were swiftly dispatched. On arrival, it was evident that the crew had no small battle on their hands. The wind, combined with the proximity of the surrounding homes, ensured the odds were stacked against all efforts to extinguish it.
As the flames leapt from structure to structure, a potentially catastrophic disaster was looming, and the fire departments from Knysna, George and the Garden Route District Municipality were quickly summoned to assist. Further vehicles were dispatched to the scene, and the fight against the inferno continued.
At one stage, the berg wind blowing from the northeast pushed the raging fire towards Smutsville School and several formal homes bordering its perimeter fence. One of the COP members assisting on the scene rushed off to fetch bolt cutters to open the school’s back gate and give the fire team a better position to tackle the roaring blaze.
Then, mercifully, the wind direction switched, turning the flames back on their path. This was a game-changer for the exhausted firefighters who could finally take control.
By 17:30, the blaze was all but out. As the firefighters sifted through the rubble to extinguish remnant flames, the community could breathe a collective sigh of relief that nobody had perished or even suffered serious injury. Disaster had indeed struck, but many agree it could have been much worse.
Nevertheless, the damage to personal property was huge, and the community affected could only stand in shock as the smoke cleared to reveal little but heaps of ash, buckled metal and charred wood.
Meanwhile, members of COP, senior SAPS members, Mario Ferreira of Gift of the Givers, and Councillor Davis got together at the scene and formed an informal ‘disaster reaction team’ which quickly went to action. It wasn’t long before the Sedgefield network was buzzing with requests for the immediate necessities to assist the many fire victims.
The Smutsville Community Hall was opened, and local organisations and individuals dropped everything to rise to the challenge.
“It was amazing how wonderfully the community reacted,” said the councillor, overwhelmed by the response from residents of Wards 1 and 2. “From cooking meals to animal rescue to bringing in bags of bedding and clothing and even offering counselling. So many people wanted to help wherever they could. Sedgefield people certainly stand together when they face a disaster.”
Mario Ferreira of Gift of the Givers, who stepped in right at the beginning to coordinate efforts regarding the provision of food and clothing, concurs with Davis.
“Within two hours of the fire, every affected person had two blankets and a mattress to sleep on. An hour later, they all had a hot meal prepared by Sedgefield Slow Town Meals kitchen staff and the members of Sedgefield Lions,” he said, “We congratulate and thank the community of Sedgefield and surrounds for who you are and for all the assistance given. Sedgefield residents and property owners came forward to assist in restoring the dignity of those in need. To organisations such as SAM, COP, Sedgefield Neighbourhood Watch, Masitandane, Sedgefield Lions, our local churches, SAPS, Sedgefield Fire Brigade, Eden Disaster Management, Eden Fire Services, Knysna Disaster Management, local kitchens, businesses, Sedgefield Local Community Volunteers, the Ward 1 Councillor, and the many anonymous donors – we say thank you so very much for making such a huge difference.”
The Municipal Housing Department also played its part. Clean-up operations on the fire site began at 8:00 sharp the next morning, and soon after, the municipal team began building corrugated iron structures to replace the homes lost in the fire. tenant time of going to press, 13 of the thirty were built, and the work continues.
It has been a week since the fire, and Councillor Davis is happy to report that donations are still coming in, as much is still needed. Whilst clothing, toiletries and foodstuffs may be dropped at the Community Hall (non-perishable is best as this can be distributed via food parcels), there will be a call for larger goods (basic furniture, appliances, etc.) as and when the fire victims start moving into their replacement homes.
“We will keep people aware of specific needs over the various community WhatsApp groups,” he said.