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Wildfire deals hard blow to South Africa’s archives

                                Residential neighborhoods are lit by raging fires in Cape Town, South Africa, today.


    Residential neighborhoods are lit by raging fires in Cape Town, South Africa, today.

JOHANNESBURG >> Firefighters in Cape Town battled a wildfire today that had engulfed the slopes of the city’s famed Table Mountain and destroyed parts of the University of Cape Town’s library, a devastating blow to the world’s archives of Southern African history.

Helicopters dumped water on the area to try to contain the blaze, which began Sunday and was likely caused by an abandoned fire, according to South African national parks officials. But as wind picked up overnight, the fire spread to neighborhoods in the foothills of the mountain and forced some homes to be evacuated today. This evening, officials warned that the blaze would likely rage for days.

“Hopefully we can get containment very soon but to extinguish the fire, in other words to put it out completely, that’s going to take more than a week,” Philip Prins, fire manager for Table Mountain National Park, told reporters today.

The wildfire is the latest in a series of devastating mountain blazes that have swept through the Western Cape province in recent years. But the fallout from this fire was also felt across the region after towers of orange and red flames devoured Cape Town University’s special collections library — home to one of the most expansive collections of first-edition books, films, photographs and other primary sources documenting Southern African history.

“We are of course devastated about the loss of our special collection in the library, it’s things that we cannot replace. It pains us, it pains us to see what it looks like now in ashes,” Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said today. “The resources that we had there, the collections that we had in the library were not just for us but for the continent.”

She added: “It’s a huge loss.”

Just after 9 p.m. Sunday night, residents around Table Mountain reported seeing three people lighting small fires along its foothills as the wildfire raged. Soon after, police arrested one of those people — a man in his 30s — in connection with those fires, according to Jean-Pierre Smith, a city councilman in Cape Town who sits on the mayor’s safety and security committee. It is unclear if the man is connected with the initial blaze, Smith added.

The wildfire began around 9 a.m. Sunday on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, one of the rugged ridges that form part of the iconic Table Mountain backdrop to Cape Town. Fanned by gusts of wind, the fire engulfed and destroyed a hillside restaurant before moving down to the university campus, which is largely built on the slopes of the mountain.

Several buildings, including a historic mill and the school’s library, were soon on fire, and billows of thick white smoke rolled across the city. So far, there have been no deaths reported, but at least five firefighters have suffered injuries, according to officials.

Around 4,000 students were evacuated from campus residence halls Sunday, according to Nombuso Shabalala, a university spokeswoman. The university announced Sunday that it would suspend its operations until at least Tuesday.

Videos on social media showed scores of students, some clutching small bags, rushing from residence buildings as the fire engulfed the nearby hillside. Busisiwe Mtsweni, an undergraduate studying finance and accounting, was on the university’s upper campus at around noon when “everyone got into panic mode,” she said in a telephone call.

Sparks from the mountain set off smaller fires among the buildings, and billows of smoke made it difficult to breathe as she and her friends made a dash to their residences to grab their belongings, she said. Mtsweni was later evacuated by bus and spent the night in a hotel.

Today, evacuated students were reporting shortages of food and other essential supplies and volunteers were using social media and WhatsApp groups to coordinate deliveries.

By Sunday evening, a special-collections reading room at the university’s library had been gutted by the blaze, according to university officials. The reading room housed parts of the university’s African Studies Collection which includes works on Africa and South Africa printed before 1925, hard-to-find volumes in European and African languages and other rare books, according to Niklas Zimmer, a library manager at the university.

A curator of the school’s archive, Pippa Skotnes, confirmed Monday that the university’s African film collection, comprising some 3,500 archival films, had been lost to the fire. The archive was one of the largest collections in the world of films made in Africa or featuring Africa-related content. The library will conduct a full assessment of what has been lost once the building has been declared safe, university officials said.

While the university had recently begun a huge effort to digitize the school’s collections, only a “wafer thin” proportion of the special-collections archive had been transferred owing to the enormous volume of material and glacial pace of the work, said Zimmer, who has led that program. A single cabinet of microfilm, Zimmer said, might take “an entire working lifetime” to process.

University officials said they were hopeful that the bulk of the archive — which is housed in two basement floors beneath the library and protected by a system of fire doors — may have been be spared. But today, as scholars and librarians waited to hear the extent of damage, many raised the possibility that the basement may have been flooded during the firefighting effort.

“Very unique things are likely gone,” said Sibusiso Nkomo, a history Ph.D. student who is a member of an interdisciplinary archival research unit on campus.

“We’ve lost valuable history that tells us where we’ve come from,” he added, noting that the mood among his colleagues was “traumatized and devastated.”

Several other campus buildings were damaged.

For many in the Western Cape, images of the mountain ablaze were reminiscent of other major mountain fires that have ravaged the province in recent years. In 2015, fires ripped through the outskirts of Cape Town for four days, destroying around 15,000 acres of land. Two years later, another wildfire tore through a coastal town in the province, Knysna, killing at least four people and forcing about 10,000 to evacuate their homes.

The massive mountain wildfires have been fed by a combustible mix of fire-prone vegetation native to Southern Africa — known as fynbos — and particularly flammable tree species, like gumtrees and pines, that colonists imported to the Western Cape and that contribute to the accidental spread of fires.

To prevent uncontrollable wildfires, many ecologists have warned that national park officials need to conduct more frequent prescribed burns. But in Cape Town, where the city’s edges have sprawled onto the mountain’s foothills, prescribed burns are particularly difficult, and park officials have faced resistance from residents who fear their homes could be destroyed.

“If it doesn’t burn, all the vegetation is just sitting there, and it’s just a matter of time,” said Dr. Alanna Rebelo, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in ecology at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. “We’ve had this huge bonfire just waiting to happen.”

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