09/06/2017 14:56 SAST | Updated 09/06/2017 16:50 SAST

'I Lost My Childhood Home' -- Knysna Residents Start Picking Up The Pieces After Inferno

Efforts to come together in the aftermath of the devastation have been 'amazing', said Knysna deputy mayor Peter Myers.

Most of the runaway fires that engulfed the Garden Route town of Knysna have been extinguished, and those remaining are largely under control, after the "worst blaze in a built up environment in the Western Cape in recent memory".

An unprecedented inferno wreaked havoc on Wednesday and Thursday, leaving a trail of devastation in one of South Africa's most idyllic coastal towns.

Five people in the past two days have died as a result, including volunteer firefighter Bradley Richards, 24, who died in George Mediclinic after sustaining burns to 70% of his body.

Thousands of people have been displaced by the wildfire, which affected suburbs including Belvedere Heights and Knysna Heights the worst, according to Knysna deputy mayor Peter Myers. The blaze also caused severe damage to shacks in White Location, an informal settlement where at least 40 shacks were destroyed, according to EWN.

Images and videos emerging from the town show entire suburbs ravaged by flames, leaving behind hollow shells that used to be homes, engulfed in ash.

'My childhood home is gone'
The son of two residents whose house was one of those which sustained relatively minor damage, including to furniture and a burnt-down fence, told HuffPost SA his father stood on White Bridge, watching the flames creep towards his house, hearing gas canisters explode as each dwelling was consumed by fire.

The man, 57, drove to the house against his family's advice, noticing along the way most of the adjacent houses had already burnt to the ground. After spending much of the night attempting to quell the blaze, the heavy smoke thwarted his efforts and he drove away hoping for the best, he said.

He met with his wife and grandparents and proceeded to Loerie Park fields, where they stayed until 5am alongside many others who had been evacuated while the blaze continued unabated close by.

Sleepless residents, he said, were somewhat relieved as rain fell on Thursday morning -- too little too late -- while anxious family members many of whom far out of town had no way of knowing whether their families were in danger amid dead landlines and a mass electricity blackout.

The son of the affected residents, based in Johannesburg, said his mother told him it was a "miracle" their house was one of the few not destroyed. Their previous home in a different area, however, was.

"Her voice just started trembling as she tried to explain my childhood home was gone," their son told HuffPost SA. "People have had their lives rocked, everything has been taken from them."

Another couple's home was entirely destroyed while they were abroad for one of their parent's funeral.


'Media hadn't caught on by the time we were trapped'

Witnesses of a car exploding in front of them after catching alight from the fire soon realised they were trapped in the town as fires engulfed parts of the perimeter, rental agent Candy Logan told HuffPostSA.

"I called my sister who told me at the time [shortly after midday on Wednesday] there was nothing really in the media, but we were already trapped in Knysna," she said.

Logan, who had evacuated a high-lying area as flames approached, went to Thesen Island in the Knysna lagoon where they would be surrounded by water. "We had 12 people in our house who had come from other areas in danger," she said.

'Community mobilising across race and class'
Individual and community efforts to "come together" in the aftermath of the devastation "has been amazing," Myers said.

"The religious community and faith-based organisations across the spectrum have been fantastic. People are opening up their BnBs and guesthouses to people in need. People have been amazing, coming together despite their material or racial differences," he said.

"It's a pity it takes a disaster to bring people together," he said.

The Knysna Vineyard Church, as one example, has collected donations for people in desperate need and is acting as a distribution centre of basic necessities.



The deputy mayor said the Knysna municipality has been contacted by corporates and banks expressing a desire to contribute to relief efforts.

First National Bank on Friday announced it will contribute R10 million to the relief fund. FNB Provincial Head Stephan Claassen said: "We have been inspired by people's willingness to help, and want to encourage other businesses and the public in general to provide their support as every single contribution counts and will help make a difference."

Freight company DHL from Thursday was offering free delivery for donations to Knysna.

Myers said the municipality is "exceptionally grateful" for the contributions and right now is focused on the "preservation of life as the utmost priority".

The deputy mayor said the municipality is appealing to those bringing relief items to go through the joint operations centre for a more effective relief operation.

Myers said the town has received financial and relief support from the Western Cape government and surrounding municipalities, including George, who rushed in to help.

Logan, resident, said the town has received a lot of assistance but the risk of flare-ups is not over as fires continue in some areas.

She also claimed some people have taken to looting homes in areas ravaged by fires. "People cannot return to their homes, but looters have gone there and are taking electronics, TVs and other items," she said.

Appeal for donations

Knysna Municipality on Friday warned South Africans wanting to make donations to relief efforts to be on the lookout for scam accounts taking advantage of the disaster as well as "unfounded rumours of arson in Eden" circulating on social media.

The municipality's Twitter account posted three bank accounts through which donations can be made, one of which is the account for Gift Of The Givers.

* Some names have been omitted from the article at the request of those affected.