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Inspiration for wholesome living

That time the farm burnt down…

Oct 31, 2016

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Having bought the farm a year ago, our family was well aware of the threat of a devastating fire. Our valley is filled with fynbos; pine trees and wattle. We never imagined, however, that it would happen that soon or leave us with so little time for to properly prepare for it!

On the 27th August, a Saturday morning, our neighbour one valley over (roughly 20kms line of site) started a controlled burn on his farm. Weather predictions were inaccurate, the wind came up and the temperature escalated. Needless to say, the controlled fire was no longer controlled! They phoned us immediately, filled us in on what had happened and kept us up to speed with the happenings throughout the day and the next day. We could see the smoke. Our kitchen window looks directly down the valley and faces their land. We closely monitored it over the course of two days. By Monday morning they guaranteed that all was under control and the firemen on scene were comfortable that all was well and we were all in the clear. Well, not quite. The wind came up and changed direction so many times in one day, we weren’t even sure which way was North anymore! The fire escalated and by Tuesday morning, it had jumped over into our valley. Time to mobilise the troops, it just got real! We watched a wall of flames creep down the valley. My husband spent most of the day riding the road monitoring the situation. To give you an idea, we (ourselves and our neighbours on the valley adjacent to us) share one road off our farms. By late afternoon, this road was engulfed by enormous flames. Our only way out by vehicles was now closed. Various groups of fire fighters were fighting the fire from the other side. Behind us, there are canyons..no going out there by vehicle! On foot yes, but that was plan F (we have chickens, two dogs, a cat, two young children, my hubby; myself and my mom in law!).

By 4pm, the fire was only gaining momentum, the wind aiding its rapid travels down the valley right at us. It was then that we realised it was time to start phoning for helicopter evacuation, for us as well as our neighbours. I lost count of how many calls we made. We had family and friends and friends of friends phoning to help get us evacuated asap. The problem you see, is that no one can fly helicopters out here at night, with the smoke from the fire and the mountains and valleys, it was just too tricky (we understood this, but this didn’t solve our escape plan). We only have cellphone signal at our house, and up at our airstrip (if you stand in one spot and on one leg) so our connection and comms was limited. By 6pm, we now had an arc of flames roughly 2kilometres from our house. Not far for an inferno. We packed our vehicle, the munchkins and I; two dogs; our cat; hens and chicks and headed up to the airstrip to try maintain signal for calls and updates. In the meantime, my hubby and mom in law stayed down at the houses (ours and my inlaws house further down in the forest) and wet the lawn, enlarged the firebreaks with the tractor, chopped down all the big branches and any fynbos that was dangerously close to the house.

Around 7pm, I received a call from the rescue team now assigned to us, that no helicopter was coming that evening, at first light they would head over from Oudtshoorn and evacuate us all. We were cool and calm. You see, in the 14years that I have known my hubby we have been through some ‘hairy’ adventures so this was ‘normal’ for us, not ideal but somewhat normal. The man on the phone thought I was either completely nuts or in mild shock. I was as cool as a cucumber you see. This is how our family ‘roll’.  The man I spoke to on the phone was informative and confident, we discussed plan F (hike out the valley along the river) kids and zoo and all. If things got too bad and the fire too close, plan F was to be instated! Right, we got this. Gumboots off, hiking boots on.

By midnight the kids were still awake, exhausted and hyper,  so we decided to head back down to the house and let them sleep for a short while, while we decided our plan of action. The evacuation crew stayed in contact with us the entire night, via whatsapp. They were fantastic. The arc was moving towards the house at a slower pace (the wind was in our favour) but closer nonetheless. The kids and I had a power nap while my mom in law kept vigile and my hubby ran around the house doing what he could to clear the areas and wet the ground. At 2am my hubby the call, it was ‘go time’. The smoke was just too thick and the ash started falling around our house. Time to move!

The smoke was so thick plan F was now impossible, the river was down in the valley and this would’ve just acted as a funnel for the smoke. Not ideal! We each packed a backpack. What do you pack? Have you ever given that any thought? Hubby took all the tech stuff (computer, hard drives, flash drives, torches, chargers and phones), I took the contents of our safe (yip- passports, family heirlooms and vital documents) and food, ain’t going nowhere without food!

We phoned our neighbour (the ones we share the road out with), their side was still clear for now, so we headed over there. We have a short section of road that connects our farm to theirs, before we head out on the main road out. This was still open, just barely! We woke the kids, packed the car, grabbed all the animals and headed over to the neighbour! They were waiting with coffee! I have to just mention that this was our very ‘new’ neighbour who had just bought the farm and registration had just gone through the week before. We had never met. A running joke between our two families is that we should’ve met sooner and not waited for a giant ‘braai’ to get together. We all maintained our sense of humour all the way hahah. 3am to 7:30am was spent getting to know thine neighbour. We will all get along just fine, we’ve bonded over an inferno!  The fire had now crept over to the neighbour’s farm and we watched closely as it sneakily made its way towards his house!

My hubby rode up to the one spot on the neighbour’s mountain where there is cellphone signal, ‘stood on one leg with finger on ear’ and notified the evac crew that we were all together on our neighbour’s farm. Everyone was in the loop and we were to sit tight until dawn.

At 7:30 am, a blue helicopter flew over and did a ‘reccie’ of the site. Shortly afterwards, a red Air Mercy Service helicopter flew over (they should be called angel mercy services), what a team! There was no open patch to land on. No problem for them apparently. The pilot just hovered over the most open patch he could find and let one of the wilderness rescue men down to hitch us all up in harnesses. Yeehaw, free helicopter ride! Not ideal circumstances, I know I know!

Harnesses on and each with specific instructions of protocol, he calmly decided that women and children were to go first! My mom in law went up first, next was myself and my son in a giant body sling (which can only be described as a huge full body nappy) with Kian attached to me in full koala style. The wind underneath the helicopter was something else, you get pushed off your feet! Hoisted up underneath the helicopter and the winchman yanked us in.  Next up was our neighbour lady, not as pleased with her first heli ride. All the while, in true social network style, we all stood taking selfies and videos of each other! Hahah

Unfortunately, due to the size of the helicopter, we were moved in groups of three (3) so my 4year old daughter had to stay behind with my husband. My heart broke a little, okay a lot. I can’t imagine what went through her mind. Why was mama taking Kian up and not me? What put me at ease is that Daddo is definitely her favourite, this helped, a little. We were taken a short distance to ‘the crags’ in Plett, in an open field where a paramedic and fire and rescue man were waiting for us. No-one was injured, tired and messy yes, but not injured.

Three trips later, and we were all safely off the two farms. Our pets included! We will never be able to thank the mountaineering club, Air mercy and Fire and rescue enough! They were amazing! Cool and calm, professional and very very funny as well! Always great!

By 8:30am we could see black smoke coming from our area of the farmlands. Something big had gone up in flames, a house, we were convinced.

The very next day, my husband and father in law (who had been working off- shore at the time and landed that morning) headed back to the farm! Scorched! One word to describe a previously lush, fynbos and tree dense mountain range. Scorched. Pitch black from one side to the other. Smouldering and smokey. The flames were gone though. Time to assess the damage. They had no idea what they would find when they headed back there.

By a complete miracle (and hubby’s tireless work at firebreaks) our house was completely intact. If you look at the photo, you can see how the fire burnt up to our house and then moved around it, regrouped and carried on burning! We were and still are in awe. What a blessing. Our home (which is the hub of the farm, our entire battery and solar system is house there) was spared. The hanger, where all our equipment is, was also spared. The fire burnt around the entire hanger! Thanks to my hubby’s hard work at making firebreaks and keeping the ground clear and wet and by divine intervention we were spared. The farm could go on! Our entire 6km of water pipes up to the water source in the mountain was completely burnt, so we had  no water (even now, two months on, we still rely on rain water). Just what was left in the 4 jojo tanks around our house (which incidentally weren’t touched or melted) but the three higher up the hill were melted.

Sadly our parents’ house down in the forest was burnt to the ground. Heartbreaking, to say the least.

Two months on and we are still rebuilding, the gardens and orchard were full up before the fire but a lot of our veggies and fruits wilted from the extreme heat. We now focus on helping the farm recover. We’ve removed all the burnt trees and cut down burnt branches and dead shrubs etc and everything is already looking greener.

There is a lot of negative one can focus on but we choose not to. Yes our farm is pitch black and we have no fynbos to speak of. Yes, our poor bees had to jump ship. Yes, most of the animals were injured or chased away BUT we are here, we are healthy and we are rebuilding. As nature is. A few months from now, the fynbos will be prettier than ever before, there will be new species of fynbos that lay dormant waiting for a fire so that it can germinate its seeds. We can’t wait to see what surprises are in store. Nature has its balance, we all know this. Frightening as it can be at times.

On a positive note, the side we choose to see, the roads are clearer than they’ve ever been, we can see flat sections of land for building that we didn’t even know existed. The firebreaks are open so we can keep them nice and wide and plant lots of grass around our house. The list goes on. There is always good in bad. You just have to look for it!

This farm will thrive, hand in hand with nature, we will see to it![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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