Cape Fires. Mountains versus shacks.

Prof Jonathan Jansen posed this question of FaceBook. 

“A Cape Town friend just asked me an uncomfortable question. Why is there not the same level of human outpouring and compassion (and money, millions) to shack fires in the Cape as there is to mountain fires around wealthy homes in the same region? I did not have an answer….”

Some of the answers to this question are simple and can be comfortably answered, with no racial or class issues attached to them at all.

One very important point needs to be clarified here.

The volunteers from VWS do not attend shack fires. Their function is “wildfires” which means fires on the mountain. The “outpouring of money” was for the VWS (Volunteer Wildfire Services) and like any other donations they receive, it is spent on training, vehicles, equipment, maintenance and uniforms, all of which are vital to enable them to do what they do effectively.

The money is not for individual fire-fighters or residents who suffered losses as a result of the fire.

So what did cause this level of outpouring of compassion and money?

 It was a collective emotional reaction to media frenzy.

Most citizens of Cape Town have a pride and connection to the mountain. Perhaps you have to live here to understand it.

It is a huge landmark that is impossible to ignore, so these fires were always going to attract a lot of attention from the media. Fires are fascinating to most people, and the fact that these fires were being fought by volunteers was a powerful emotional hook that became central to the fire story.

The #CapeFires hashtag coupled with evocative images gained momentum on social media and certainly played a role in driving the “fire-fighters are heroes” frenzy that took hold of the city.

This blog post received over 4000 views in 24 hours, only because it fed the emotional aspect of the fire.

 Mountain Fires are very photogenic and make perfect front page stories.

The location of the fire was irrelevant; it was the magnitude and duration of it that evoked the reaction that it got.

Human nature is what it is, and with any major natural disaster, people want to feel as though they are part of it. The emotional connection to “the fire on our mountain” coupled with the pictures of the “volunteer heroes” spiralled as more areas were affected, and more people were taking photos and sharing them with everyone.

Fire-fighters employed by the City of Cape Town are not allowed to take photos at the scene of a fire. So unless the media are present, there will be no heart rendering images doing the rounds of Twitter, FaceBook and YouTube.


So the following questions must be posed. 

 “Is it the media that deems a shack fire of little interest to the general population of Cape Town?”

There are plenty of shack fires every year, and they do sometimes get a mention, but rarely does one see TV crews or press photographers rushing to the scene.

Are shack dwellers less active on social media than those living on the slopes of the mountain?

To gain traction on social media, pictures of a runaway shack fire would need to be taken and circulated by the people in the area, as the fire-fighters from the City of Cape Town do not have the time to take pictures, and are not permitted to do so anyway. I would imagine that the shack dwellers are too busy trying to save their possessions, or helping their neighbours to do so, that they do not have the time or the inclination to pause to take photos and then share them on social media. The only other way to share the stories is if the print and television media are present.

Fire-fighters do not see colour or class.

They see smoke, flames, human life and properties at risk. Their only concern is to minimise risk and contain any fire, as fast as possible.

In the defence of the people of Cape Town.

I have no doubt that in the event of a shack fire burning for an extended period of time, and brought to the attention of the general public via social media, radio stations and the city press, the same Capetonians would be as generous in giving their time, efforts and money to assist.

As shack fires are not fought by volunteers, the call would have to be for donations to Disaster Management to assist individuals who have lost their homes and all their possessions, rather than assisting a volunteer organisation.

Rather than attempting to turn the #CapeFires into a racial or class issue, it would be preferable to celebrate the way the fire shattered a these barriers. The people of Cape Town of all colours and social standings were united in the battle to beat the fire.

5 Reasons why we should celebrate the fire

In no way do I wish to detract from the enormous losses and trauma suffered by residents and businesses, I extend my sincere sympathies to all of you.

The increased awareness, education and fund raising, can unfortunately only be achieved by a fire of this magnitude.  A fire that is big enough to captivate an entire city.

Often dramatic events are needed to facilitate change and to alter perceptions.

Here are the 5 reasons why I celebrate this fire.

  1. The VWS (Volunteer Wildfire Services) received much needed publicity for the great work they do, most of it unseen by the general public. This resulted in a financial injection of over R3 MILLION  from generous and grateful businesses and residents in the city who responded so well to the KFM and CapeTalk radiothon. Before the fire, most people never paused to give thought to the firefighters of the City of Cape Town or Working on Fire, and very few people were even aware of the existence of the VWS.

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  1. Cape Town United. This is not the name of a football club, it is the only way to describe how the people of Cape Town worked together in their support, doing whatever needed to be done to get the fire out. Capetonians are generous, compassionate and stand together in a crisis. The stories of acts of kindness, selflessness and generosity towards neighbours, firefighters and emergency services staff  will be told for years.


  1. We have learned so much. The best lessons come from experience.
  • We know firsthand how fast a fire can spread and how difficult it is to contain
  • We know how easily a fire can start and that butt tossing, littering, particularly bottles, can easily start a fire of this magnitude. We know that we can never be careless with anything that has even the tiniest spark, as that spark can grow into a giant fire.
  • We know that while we are all drawn to a fire, we must stay well out of the way of the fire fighters, give way immediately for emergency vehicles, and ensure we are not hampering their efforts in any way.
  • We have a much greater understanding and respect for the men and woman who put out these fires, and how we can support them.
  1. Fynbos, the next generation. We will be seeing outstanding displays of colour on the mountain as soon as next week as the fynbos bursts into new life.  We know that fynbos needs fire to germinate, so although the mountain looks really sad and barren right now, this will not last for long. Many aliens were burned and this is good and bad. The heat intensity when aliens burn can negatively impact on the fynbos seeds. Overall, more good than harm was done, and it is predicted that new flowers will be appearing in a few weeks and this spring will deliver a spectacular show.


  1. Capetonians are adaptable. The first to turn a disaster into a positive event are the organisers of the Cape Town Cycle Tour. They have reduced the route, and named this years event the #‎Showyoucaresolidarityride They state “The ride remains a celebration of Cape Town and this wonderful Peninsula on the southern tip of Africa. The Cape Town Cycle Tour will go on because, as the fighting spirit of the people of Cape Town has demonstrated, nothing can take it away from us – not even fire.”


I am immensely proud to be a citizen of this incredible city.

Why Fire-fighters are not heroes.

There is no place for a hero in a fire.

Fire fighting is about team work, training, physical fitness and endurance. It is about respect for, & understanding of fire & fire behaviour.

Fire-fighters are not glory seekers who want to be heroes, they are dedicated men and women with a calling.

Most fire fighters I know, full time and volunteers, are humble people who have a fascination and passion for fires and firefighting. Many of them display a strong sense of community service and you will often find they are involved in other ways, either as volunteers for other organisations, or active on committees  in whatever their particular hobby or sport is.

Right now, the work of the VWS may appear glamorous and exciting with many people wanting to do what  they are doing.

 The reality is that a fire on this scale only comes around every 5 – 10 years.

The members of VWS spend many more hours doing training, standby duty, refresher courses and fitness skills than they do fighting fires. This requires a high degree of dedication and commitment. In my opinion it is this dedication that makes them heroes.  They give up their free time so that when a fire like this occurs, they are trained, ready and willing to take leave from their jobs to do what must be done.


The fire fighters in the full time employment of the City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services do what we are seeing now on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and more. Often on a smaller scale, and out of the public eye, many times more dangerous than what we are seeing in this fire.

Over and above wildfires, they also contend with countless veld fires that can take hours to put out, burning houses, runaway shack fires, false alarms, incidents regarding hazardous materials and burning factories.

Fire and Rescue workers are also trained in basic life support and part of their job is attending motor vehicle accidents. They have to keep their spirits up when being faced with death, tragedy and danger on a regular basis.


There is no place for a “hero” who wants to run into a burning building to rescue the little child, or the fire fighter who breaks away from his crew to  run down a ravine to rescue Bambi. This behaviour puts the entire fire crew at risk. Fire fighting is about teamwork, obeying orders, and being in a frightening situation while staying calm, thinking clearly and putting the hours of training and studying into practice.


The unseen side of the City of Cape Town fire fighters are the hours and hours of drills and practice, the cleaning of the station and vehicles, sitting watch answering calls between midnight and 4 am and dealing with abuse, stoning of vehicles and disruptive bystanders when at calls.  It is the abandoning of the supper they have just cooked at the station to respond to a call. It is busy shifts when they run out of clean gear and spend 12 hours in wet clothes. It is the effort required while off duty to maintain the fitness levels required to do the job effectively.



How you can help after the media hype is over.

It is great when they are loved by all when the attention of everyone is on the fire.

  •  Please spare a thought for them after the fire is out,  and continue to give them the respect they deserve.
  • Always give way for emergency vehicles.
  • Comply when they ask you to move back so they can do their job. Respect their authority at the scene of a crash, bush or house fire. They really do not have time to do crowd control when at any sort of emergency, yet they get sworn at, have stones thrown at their vehicles and even people trying to grab the hoses out of their hands.
  • Don’t go to the fireline and try to help. This will never be allowed and is dangerous as well as obstructive.
  • Set up a monthly debit order for the VWS. Any amount will be gratefully received.
  • There are many ways to get involved with VWS. Members are needed for logistics, catering during big fires such as this one, qualified drivers to transport firefighters to and from the fires and many other supportive tasks. Get in touch with them or visit their website to find out more ways in which you can assist in a meaningful way.
  • When you see them at the petrol station or the base on Table Mountain give them a smile or a thank you.

I am not speaking as a representative of VWS, or the City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services.

 I am speaking as the mother of a son who has been with VWS for 10 years and who is a full time fire fighter for the City of Cape Town. I have washed the uniforms, seen the exhaustion, heard the coughing, and missed my son when he has been on duty on countless birthdays, Christmas, public holidays and family celebrations.

I salute all the members of the VWS, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services, Disaster Management and Working on Fire Members.

Thank you for your selfless dedication.

Useful numbers.

Report a fire.  Phone 107 or the control centre 021 590 1900 

Report a mountain or wildfire. Phone 107 or  021 480 7700

None of these photos are from the fire that is presently burning.

New. African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai.

Lost forever.

Ninety birds a week.

Every week.

Since 1956.

Seabirds need our assistance.


The World Class facility that was opened in Gansbaai on 26th February 2015 is love in action.

APSSZA is the result of a community working together, inspired by a man with a vision. A man who prefers animals to people.

A man who quotes Kahlil Gibran when telling us about the people who helped him to make this dream a reality.

“It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. And there are those who have little, and they give it all”

Wilfred Chivell gives his all to everything that he does. He inspires, cajoles and motivates others to to do the same.


The African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary will make a difference.

Pierre de Villiers of Cape Nature Conservation says ” the key to decision making is good science.”

APSSA will be practicing good science. Animals do not need to be managed, they know what to do. People must be changed and we need to improve in how we do things. Education plays a vital role in changing people. APSSA will be providing this education.



The staff at APSSA are so passionate about penguins that they choreographed a dance for the opening, and performed it with big smiles to laughing applause.


Sponsors include Volkswagen South Africa, Grootbos Foundation, The Dyer Island Trust, Creation Wines, The Wildlands Conservation Trust , Youngman Roofing, Two Oceans Aquarium, Grindrod.

Click the link to donate or see  All sponsors and supporters.

For more information on the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary please visit