CAPE TOWN – Cape Town firefighters were forced to withdraw briefly from a blaze raging in Rylands after some residents turned on them on Tuesday.
“We have got no idea what made the crowd so volatile,” said City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue spokesperson Theo Layne, describing the frightening events during a blaze at Pooke se Bos informal settlement.
One man died in the fire in the settlement east of Cape Town, and 52 dwellings were gutted. At least 127 people have been displaced and are relying on food and bedding donated by a local foundation.
However, the death toll may have been worse if the situation had not calmed down enough to allow the 36 firefighters in nine fire vehicles to return, warned Layne.
It was not just firefighters who were forced to withdraw, but also the law enforcement officers on the scene.
“The very threatening behaviour caused us a bit of concern,” said Layne.
Besides the risk of physical injury, a sudden withdrawal also left hoses and other expensive firefighting equipment at risk of being destroyed, he said.
“In most cases, they slash hoses,” said Layne.
“It’s ridiculous, in that the very equipment to save properties from burning is being damaged to the point that they cannot be used to fight the fire.
“On this occasion, there was no damage and the threatening behaviour subsided after their brief withdrawal, and they returned to continue fighting the fire,” he said.
It is not the first time this year that firefighters have felt threatened by a community they were assisting.
‘We are there to help people’
When shacks at Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay, started burning in March, firefighters had to endure a similar ordeal as some residents would not let them through.
The fire destroyed 3 500 structures and adversely affected 15 000 people.
“It happens reasonably often enough for us to be concerned. We are there to provide a service, like the paramedics,” Layne said.
Paramedics have become sitting ducks in some Cape Town suburbs where they are targeted by robbers while attending to a call-out.
They are not allowed to go out on a call-out without a police escort anymore in certain parts of the city, such as Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.
However, in an incident last Wednesday, even a policeman escorting an ambulance in Gugulethu was ambushed by a group of robbers.
He was shot in the stomach, and one robber was killed and another injured.
In her budget speech in March, Western Cape Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said 95 EMS staff members had been attacked while on duty during the previous financial year.
Layne said that mop-up operations at Pooke se Bos were underway on Tuesday afternoon.
Once the site was cleared, the Department of Human Settlements was expected to provide starter building materials to help displaced residents get back on their feet.
“We at fire and rescue services are there to help people. That is our only function, and if we are prevented from helping any one person, it will be unfair.”
The cause of Tuesday’s fire would be investigated.
PHOTO: (File, Working on Fire)