(Warning: This is not a happiness post, this is my experience of the Knysna Fires. There will be a follow-up post or two which will be happier)
I woke up to the smell of smoke on June 7th, 2017.
I instinctively felt unsettled. I got up and looked out the window and noticed that the sky was slightly orange tinted. The sun was coming up through the smoke on the horizon. Still, it wasn’t cause for major alarm. So something somewhere was burning.
The Kids were to spend the day at home, because the department of education had been told that there were big storm warnings for Cape Town, so the entire province closed school for the day.
I wasn’t too concerned. Cape Town is 500 KM away and Knysna didn’t even have rain forecast, nevermind storms.
So once the nanny arrived I went to work.
I sent a text to my Mum (who lived next door to me) telling her there was a fire somewhere and she should keep an eye on it, because the smoke was in the wrong direction for rubbish burning.
When I hit the Lagoon road I saw smoke on the other side of town. Two fires. But that one WAS on the right side of town for rubbish burning, no biggy, off to work.
I work at a digital marketing agency, so we spend a lot of time online (okay, ALL our work is online, we live inside our computers). At about 10:00 AM I noticed a post on Social Media that said Knysna had large fires on the hills alongside the town. We all traipsed out of the office and looked about. Lots of smoke in the West.
Still, no real sense of panic. Concern for the wildlife, yes, but I still had no idea of what was to come.
Throughout the day I kept an eye on the news.
At about 3 PM my Mom called to say she was worried, would I please come home. I thought she was being overly concerned but I went and excused myself from the boss and went home to check up on things.
The fire was raging on the western hills, but it was still on the other side of the river. Away from town. Away from my home. Rivers don’t generally burn that well, so it seemed ok.
I didn’t factor in the gale force winds.
Instead I told my nanny I would take her back to catch a taxi in town, so that she could go home and check on her house. By this time we knew that there was more than one fire burning and I didn’t know if her area was okay.
My kids usually like to stay at home if I just pop to town quickly. It’s not far and my daughter is a young teen. But for some reason, I said, “just jump in the car like that, come with me”. (My daughter was in pajamas, my son in white Bermuda shorts).
That was the last time I ever saw my house. I even left two bags of groceries still packed in bags on the kitchen floor.
I distinctly remember the moment I locked the kitchen gate. I was thinking “I wonder where Delilah (my cat) is. Probably hiding under the bed”.
After dropping the nanny I popped into the office to pick up my phone charger. While I was there I got a call from a neighbour:
“I can’t get hold of your mom! We’re evacuating, everything is burning and her phone is off, I don’t know if she got out!”
I try to phone my mom. Nothing.
I didn’t have time to panic, I just reacted.
I grabbed my kids and ran to the car. We drove for home. We had to get to my mom and her 78-year-old husband and make sure they were evacuating!
Half way home I got a call from my office. Luckily I told my daughter to answer it. It was the office finance manager. He has a really calm voice. He’s a really even tempered guy. He says “Your mom is here. She says don’t go home. The garage was already burning when they left”.
By pure dumb luck they had heard a gas bottle explode up the road and decided to get in the car with their cat in a box.
There had been no evacuation by the authorities, no warning bells ringing, it all happened too fast.
I still wanted to go home though, to find my cat.
But half way down the road we had to turn around. There were too many houses burning too close to the road. We could not get through.
I haven’t seen Delilah since, but we are still looking for her. Many cats got out and were found later. We hope she is one of them, just hiding out somewhere.
The gale force wind had taken floating, burning debris across the river, and the fire had raged on.
My biggest immediate concern was to find my mother and make sure she was okay.
When I found her we went, shell-shocked, to my bosses house because he kindly said so, and we were too dumb stuck and incoherent to think of anything other than getting away from the flames.
The wind was pumping and the fire raged. A neighbour of a friend watched their timber house burn to ash in three minutes. There was no time to get anything out. And it was spreading like, well, wild fire.
The fire burned a route from suburb to suburb faster than one could have driven it. We had to evacuate again.
By 11Pm I was among thousands of people standing at Loerie Park. We had our cars. We were parked on a the sports field. We went to find the Rotary Hall pub behind the field where the barman had put all the bottles on the table and told everyone to help themselves. I poured a stiff whiskey (that didn’t touch my head in the circumstances) and felt like I was in Shawn of the Dead, or something similar.
I found myself standing in the doorway, my kids trying to sleep on the floor with blankets near me, talking on the phone to my best friend (in Cape Town) for what I thought would be the very last time.
I have never been more terrified in my life. And yet I had curiously no fear for myself. I was afraid for my children and my ageing parents. I was afraid my kids would never grow up. I was afraid I would fail them and break my promise to keep them safe no matter what.
We stood in the dark watching the fire getting closer and the dramatic flares as gas bottles exploded into the night sky. There were no stars. Just thick, choking smoke and an eerie orange glow.
Then the ambulances arrived. They had up to fourteen patients in each ambulance, slotted in widthways. They carried them in on blankets. The Shawn of the Dead vibe disappeared and things became (unbelievably) even more terrifying. The hall became a makeshift hospital as the real one had been evacuated (part of it burnt). We retreated to our cars.
As the flames ate across the landscape towards us, I got a call from a friend who lives on the island. She said if I could get down the road I should come to her. So my kids and I in my ancient little green golf, and my Mom and her husband in her car, braved the road and headed for the island. None of the adults slept. We lay with blankets on the floor and we watched the windows.
That’s how I saw in my 33rd birthday.
The next morning was the most un-birthday, birthday ever. It was worse than the one where my car was stolen, or the next one where I was really sick. It was a non-birthday. So much so that I have decided it didn’t count, and I get to be 32 for another year.
The fires raged for days. We moved from place to place looking for somewhere safe. I have never been so scared, for so long.
I managed to get my mom and husband in with a friend of hers in a safe area.
Eventually, by the Friday night, I was so tired, I ended up taking an offer to take the kids and go sleep on the lounge floor of someone who was in a safe place. The two kids and I all bundled up together. (Thanks to my good friend, who’s mother-in-law’s lounge we slept in).
That was two weeks ago and still the fires keep flaring up. We are all pretty tired of our vigil. Even now I am watching the small plumes of smoke every day. Right now I am listening to the wind knowing I will have another night dreaming of fire, if and when I finally manage to fall asleep.
It will be a long time before Knysna sleeps a peaceful sleep again.
The greatest tragedy is the heartbreaking loss of life.
I don’t feel that I have the authority to speak about the fire victims. It’s too fresh in our hearts and too personal. Knysna will not ever forget them. I will be haunted by their stories for the rest of my life.
More information is available here.
Only click if you have a strong stomach.
The Knysna Fires Resulted in the Largest Deployment of Firefighters in South African history. Fire troops and army helicopters were sent from around the country.
My greatest Gratitude is that my family and I are safe and alive, even though we lost our homes, and even though my Delilah kitty is still missing. I am holding out hope for her, yet.
Look out for my next post, Knysna Fires Part 2, in which I will tell you all about suddenly being homeless, kindness and life choices.
Love and Light.