The horror of the Garden Route fires

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Sophia Kaplan (age 6) shows her family fleeing a wall of fire

By Tali Feinberg

On Wednesday 7 June multiple fires began to rage across the famed Garden Route, destroying about 1059 homes and leading to a humanitarian crisis in the area. The communities of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay were particularly affected.

The fires were so rapid and unexpected, that just before their farm was razed to the ground, Ariella and Clive Kaplan were at the local KwikSpar getting a few things. “Looking back, it was a ridiculous thing to do under the circumstances,” exclaims Ariella. “We were not thinking clearly at all. The whole time at the KwikSpar, I kept saying to Clive that we needed to head home.”

They returned to their farm on the outskirts of Plettenberg Bay, which included a family home, guesthouse and cottage, and were immediately evacuated. As Ariella’s mother, their children, staff, pets and a few possessions were packed into three vehicles, they “tore out of there, only to be told that the road was closed on both sides and we were directed to turn into an open farm field.

“We sat and watched in horror as the flames got higher and higher. Each time the smoke turned black, we knew another house was taken. Friends described how they saw our gas bottles exploding and popping up meters high. In the middle of this, ADT called to say there was an alarm activation at our house. My response was, “don’t bother to send a vehicle, the house isn’t there anymore.”

The family were taken in by friends, and the next day Ariella and Clive returned to their property. “What we found was a blackened waste land. Our house had been obliterated. The only remaining area was my mother’s flatlet. Her kitchen had been melted, the bedroom blackened, but less than a meter away, her dining room table was unscathed and on it stood a Siddur and Kiddush cup which she had been planning to take.”

In Knysna, Dr Merle Friedman and her family were also looking at the remains of their home. A trauma counsellor and psychologist herself, she comments that the effects of losing one’s house are more overwhelming than she ever imagined. Picking through the rubble, she says her son will build a sculpture of the remains. In an uncanny coincidence, her mother’s Pesach things all survived. These were literally the only items left intact.

Erez and Louisa Shneor from Plettenberg Bay also lost their home and farm to the fires. Erez describes how they had initially felt safe, and spent time transferring all of their precious belongings to a large workshed which they thought would be protected. They had just completed this evacuation when a fireball from a tree landed on the roof of the shed, destroying all of their belongings and Erez’s business’ machinery. As they fled to safety, Erez said the fire was like “the cutting of a cake” — it just kept taking more and more.

Since the fire, Erez has been helping others to begin rebuilding their homes. “In Judaism, we say that nothing is for the good, nothing is for the bad, we just need to learn from it and move on,” he says. The couple has been assisted by a number of crowd-funding campaigns in South Africa and Israel, and an Israeli friend came to South Africa for two weeks just to be with them and help.

Tanya and Derek Kushner live on Thesen Islands in Knysna — one of the few safe havens when the fires broke out, explains Tanya. Like other island residents, the Kushners opened their home to evacuees. They also faced suffocating smoke, power failures and limited water, and after a few days decided to evacuate because the smoke was too overpowering. In a series of Whatsapp messages, Tanya described the scene to family as it unfolded: “Clouds of smoke everywhere… I can’t breathe. So many people have lost their homes. Virtually the whole of Knysna is decimated. It has been declared a disaster zone… it’s a total war zone. I cannot believe the goodwill of the people – everyone is helping, giving and sharing. So many people we know have lost everything… the townships are also so severely affected. We now do not have water… trying to buy water, chaos. It’s an apocalypse.”

Johannesburg couple Taryn Kahn and Graham Ziegler were in Plettenberg Bay on holiday to celebrate Taryn’s birthday. Ziegler awoke in the night and saw that the fire was 200m away. The couple dashed to their rental car with minimal possessions and tried to drive away on the main Robberg road, which was engulfed in flames. They eventually abandoned their rental car and ran to the beach. At the highway, they were picked up and taken to a place of safety, which was later evacuated. That evening they returned to their holiday home, which had been surrounded by fire but miraculously not damaged and they returned to Johannesburg the next day. They feel lucky to be alive.

Jewish artist Beezy Bailey was sent a haunting photo of his holiday home burning to the ground. In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, Bailey wrote: “I’m more interested in how beautiful this photo is of my Plett house on fire than sad. I’ll do a painting of it. Please — your support, sympathy and sorrow must be focused on the hundreds of people with no insurance, who have lost everything. Let us unite in times like these, something we South Africans are so good at, and pick ourselves up by our boot straps and re-build broken hearts, homes and lives together.”

Speaking from London, Bailey said that the first calls to assist were from Jewish friends. “As a Jew, my late grandfather Dr Harry Epstein instilled in me the unquestionable duty to reach out to others less fortunate.” He adds that the overwhelming response to his Facebook post has been deeply humbling: “It reveals a huge desire among South Africans to reach out to each other. We are at a place in our broken country when the invisible walls of division are falling. For every degree of darkness and hate, there are equal degrees of love and light. This disaster is a trigger to this — a blessing in disguise.”

As the days and weeks have passed, the families are slowly coming to terms with their losses and dealing with the trauma. A drawing by Sophia Kaplan (age 6), shows the family fleeing a wall of fire. Dr Merle Friedman has put together a proposal with Former Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus, who currently heads the Knysna Initiative for Learning and Teaching (KILT), calling for a trauma centre to be established in Knysna.

“Cognizant of the massive challenge facing Knysna, contact has been made with colleagues in Australia who are world renowned experts in the field of trauma and fire disasters,” explains Dr Friedman. “The Australians have developed excellent skills to deal with bush fires and are willing to come to Knysna to share their experience and expertise, and train professionals and volunteers.

“In order to do this work, there is a requirement for facilities. Working together with a variety of stakeholders and in keeping with the municipality of Knysna’s objectives, there is an imperative to ensure that trauma counselling is available to those in need, as quickly and sustainably as possible.”

Community members, civil society, businesses and communities have come out in full force to assist those who had lost everything.

Israel’s Ambassador Arthur Lenk visited Knysna in the days after the fire. In a Facebook post that has since been viewed more than any other during his four years in South Africa, he said that Israel donated R25 000 worth of food and produce to the firemen and other first responders, which he presented to Knysna Mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies. “Israelis know, too well, emergency situations and disasters. We remember assistance that Israel received from friends around the world during the awful Mount Carmel fires in 2010,” said the Ambassador.

The Board of Deputies’ Liza-Jane Saban said that “Our community has been overwhelming in their support. We have received R240 000 cash donations so far.” The Board also sent a truckload of donated household goods from a collection drive that was arranged in conjunction with the Union of Jewish Women and SA Zionist Federation. Pick n Pay kindly donated the truck and transportation of the goods up to the Plett Shul.

Saban adds that Stacey Aronson from the Plett Shul has worked tirelessly to sort donations from Cape Town and Joburg; and arranged a more intimate, personal collection space for families who have thanked her for making it a dignified experience. Counsellors also went to assist with trauma counselling for local school children who otherwise wouldn’t have the resources to afford a psychologist. “Resident Jewish families with whom we have worked are in the process of assessing the remains of their properties; and trying to get a semblance of order back into their lives,” says Saban.

According to the Knysna Plett Herald (29 June), 50% of those whose houses were destroyed are uninsured. There is a concern that some residents who were insured will decide not to rebuild but will take their insurance payouts and leave Knysna. The council is considering incentives to prevent this, and is also discussing how it could ensure that houses are built in a more sustainable way. There is also a concern that as a result of the fires, many families with lower incomes have lost jobs like gardening or domestic work.

The paper also reports that Knysna has more than enough donations of clothing and does not need more. What it needs now is financial donations, building materials, tinned food, toiletries and ‘white goods’ such as toasters, kettles and microwaves.
Jewish day schools, organisations, shuls, companies and individuals have all rallied to contribute to all victims of the fire, and they are too numerous to mention here. The real test will be in the months and years ahead, as the Garden Route will need literal and figurative support to rebuild.

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