Fire has been an integral part of the Overstrand and Hermanus for millions of years. The first fires happened for purely natural reasons, probably most often started by lightning strikes. The plant ancestors of our fynbos adapted to these periodic fires, probably over hundreds of thousands of years. Then, species began to develop beyond just protecting themselves from fire. They incorporated fire into their reproductive cycle. But it has to be the right intensity of fire, with the right amount of smoke, at the right time of year or after the right number of years, to renew growth. These are ‘good’ fires and controlled burning has become part of the sound management of fynbos.
But, since Europeans began to settle here we have made ourselves vulnerable to ‘bad’ fires. We planted alien species of trees, such as pine and eucalyptus, that burn more easily and at a much hotter temperature than fynbos. A fire fed by aliens simply destroys fynbos and can more easily spread.
We also cleared natural vegetation and built houses, hotels and shops close to areas that had been burning naturally for millennia. Even a fire started by natural causes becomes threatening once it gets into settled areas. And Hermanus has had a lot of fires of this sort.
The early village was small and seems to have escaped really damaging fires. But from the 1930s Hermanus experienced devastating fires with great regularity.
The following list is probably not exhaustive, but it is long enough:
- 1940-1950: Bay View, Cliff Lodge and Riviera Hotels (causes unknown)
- 1950-1960: Nielsen, Astoria and Seahurst hotels (causes unknown); 3 houses in Voelklip, six houses in Westcliff, 23 houses in Eastcliff.
- 1960-1970: Birkenhead Hotel, 6 houses in Kwaaiwater, fire starting on the Golf Course; Onrus Mountain burnt; 22 houses in Eastcliff, fire starting near Hoy’s Koppie.
- 1980-1990: Royal Hotel
In 1963 the Hermanus Municipality decided that thatch or other inflammable material could no longer be used for roofing. It also introduced strict regulations obliging property owners to keep vacant plots clear of vegetation.
Fire-fighting methods have improved, including the use of helicopters. But the threat of fire remains very real. In December 2015 and January 2016 more than 70 intense fires occurred in the Western Cape, several of the worst of these in the Overberg and Overstrand, with some close to residential areas of Greater Hermanus. The Onrus Mountain burnt again, portions of the Fernkloof Nature Reserve were burnt and there was damage in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
Not many people at a fire leave an interesting account of it. They are too depressed or too busy to do so. But Berdine Luyt is different. She describes with a little humour, the gutting by fire of three hotels in the 1940s – of course, it may have been different if it had been the hotel owned by her family (The Marine Hotel). But the Luyt family were very fire-conscious and never experienced a fire of any size.
Here is Berdine’s account of the gutting by fire of the Cliff Lodge Hotel on 27 February 1944:
Cliff Lodge, the hotel at Westcliff with the picturesque Tudorish appearance, was due to be sold at the end of this month by public auction. Yesterday a fire broke out in the roof, and it now makes a very picturesque ruin. The owners, Lt. and Mrs JM Banks, were staying there at the time.
The first we knew of the fire was an urgent call from the local telephone exchange for fire-extinguishers. We ran around snatching ours from their brackets on the walls – Connie was so excited that she pushed the lever of one by mistake and sprayed everything and everyone around her before we could get the thing outside. We sent them all up to Cliff Lodge in the car, but they were not really required after all, as fire extinguishers were of no practical use against the fire then blazing away furiously.
The fire started with a short in the electrical wiring in the roof, which was of thatch, so it caught rapidly, the fire then spreading downwards. It was in the middle of the morning and all their visitors were out – playing golf, on the beach, or walking about the village. The few that were in the hotel helped the staff rescue whatever they could, and everyone getting the alarm from the telephone exchange went along to help also.
The whole sky to the west was crimson, and from our balcony we could see the flames leaping high into the air. Mother went to see the Manager and find out what she could do to help. She returned just before lunch with a list of people that we were to accommodate somehow and telephone calls to be made.
The Marine was full, of course, but we wrested their private sitting-rooms from the people who had suites and turned these, the Smoking Room and the Card Room into bedrooms. The Buick and hotel bus went down to pick up the Cliff Lodge people, and we served a cold buffet lunch at half-past two to a great many. The car and bus made several trips and finally delivered the people we could not accommodate to the hotels and houses that were to put them up…One honeymoon couple had gone to Voelklip beach in their bathing costumes and wraps just after breakfast. They returned at lunchtime to find their hotel in flames and all their belongings destroyed. Her entire trousseau was burnt, all his uniforms (he was in the R.A.F.), and all their wedding presents.
Today, every one of us is affected by any fire in the Overstrand. Even if we are lucky enough to avoid being burnt out of house and home, the Municipality has to bear the cost of extinguishing the fires – apparently, the fires in Meerensee area and Fernkloof Nature Reserve have alone cost at least R1½ million, which means that other positive activities have to be reduced and ongoing services cut back – or, rates have to be increased, hitting all our pockets. History warns us to be very fire conscious.
This article is part of a series presented by the Hermanus History Society and written by Robin Lee. If you are interested in joining the History Society or buying a copy of the book mentioned, please contact Robin Lee: 028 312 4072 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Luyt’s Marine: A Diary of the Years 1942-1947 by Berdine Luyt, published by the Hermanus History Society, 2015. (available at Bookmark, The Book Cottage, Hermanus Tourism Office and the Marine Hotel): R260