What We Lost
On 7 June, wild gale-force winds swept fires through Knysna and the surrounding areas. By lunchtime, it was clear that the blaze was out of control. Hectares of forest and fynbos were alight, and homes were burning. The fire raged for five days, as over 800 firefighters worked to save the town. Around 600 homes were taken by the disaster, and 7 lives were lost. These are the remarkable stories of locals.
Cwayita Runeli was part of two teams of firefighters who battled blazes on behalf of SanParks. As a ranger, she had recently undergone firefighter training. There was only one other woman fighting alongside her from SanParks.
‘I feel scared every time I fight fires. Anything can happen. Before we go out, we are briefed and told who will be in front and who at the back. And in that moment you wonder what could happen out there – what if I do something wrong? When we were sent to Brenton, it was my first time in such a huge fire. I’d never seen anything like it.
How can I describe this fire? You know waves on the sea? That’s how the flames moved through the fynbos. Those plants hadn’t burned in over 15 years, so just imagine. Even the sound of the fire was like a rumbling ocean. The crashing waves. The sky was dark, the smoke everywhere. But I told myself, “I have to save these lives.” I knew exactly what to do. I told myself, “they don’t know about the fire. I know about the fire. I have to help them.
People say that ladies can’t fight the fires. But I know that I can do anything the men can do. There is nothing that can stop me. People used to say that my body is too small, I’m too thin – all those things. But I told them, “It doesn’t matter what her body is like – if she did the training, she can do the job.” If you tell yourself that you can do it, you can. And I did.’
Candace Myers spent much of the emergency working beside her husband, the Deputy Mayor of Knysna, in the operations room. She was the go-between, taking phone calls and relaying crucial, life- and property-saving information to rescue workers on the ground. She also helped with relief for people and wild animals affected by the fire, especially in Brenton-On-Sea, a very hard-hit area.
‘You know, there are always fires and we always know that somehow these things are taken care of. Firemen go out, save the day and we don’t think more of it. But sitting in the ops room with the disaster team that Wednesday afternoon, I felt absolute fear in the pit of my stomach. This fire was out of control and we didn’t have enough firemen and expertise. Our town was in flames.
Members of the public were helping evacuate residents, everyday heroes pulling together and saving each other. All the while, around us gas bottles were exploding. You’d just hear explosions and everything would rock, glass would shatter. At some stage, MTN then went down and we didn’t have communication with our family or anyone else. And I suddenly felt sort of alone… But we just had to hold out hope that somehow the people we loved were getting the help they needed. We spent the whole night helping wherever we could, not knowing how our families were.
The next morning, we drove around the estuary and it was still alight. The guesthouses were burning. Trees were falling. There were embers swirling in the wind. It was like another planet. You couldn’t believe that this was our home. In five days, I’d experienced emotions I haven’t had in 50 years of my life.