On Wednesday 7 June, 2017, Knysna went up in flames.
I first found out about it here in New York when I woke up to Facebook posts, pictures and videos from friends mentioning fires around our home town.
One friend had posted a report from the local municipality that detailed multiple fires, but they were in areas I’m not all that familiar with, or don’t know at all. Hooggekraal. Springveld. De Hoop. Fires high up in the mountains and in plantations. Fires far from home.
But further up my Facebook feed, friends in Knysna were starting to panic. Back roads were being closed. Houses on the outskirts of town were being evacuated.
At 9am EST I spoke to my mother, who confirmed the fires were spreading but reassured me their neighbourhood of upper Old Place was out of harm’s way.
“There aren’t that many trees around here,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you at least pack a suitcase so you’re ready in case something happens?” I said. “With things like your passports and IDs.”
“Ag, there’s no need for that,” she said.
She sent me a few pictures she’d taken of the smoke-filled sky, some from the middle of town, some from the balcony of our family home, overlooking the lagoon. Curious-onlooker pictures.
It looked bad, but still distant.
But the panic on my Facebook feed spread as fast as the fire. Posts became more frantic as the local authorities closed the N2 on both sides of town, isolating the residents within. Videos showed lines of cars trying to get out against a backdrop of flames and smoke. Friends who, like me, are thousands of miles from home in places like London and Washington and California started begging for information about families they couldn’t get hold of.
I called my mother again. This time, she said my father had connected the hose pipe, “just in case.” The fire wasn’t near them yet, but gale-force winds meant it was out of control and helicopters were unable to take off to help.
At 2.35pm EST, I got the news that my parents, too, had been evacuated. On their way out, I found out later, they had grabbed my father’s medication, a few sets of underwear and Tess, the cat. Remembering my advice, my mother grabbed their passports too.
For the longest hour, I couldn’t get hold of my mother after her cell phone battery died. The last message I got through to her was “Keep dad’s phone on!” The last message I got back was “We left it behind.”
I had never felt more helpless, or further away from home.
In the end, my parents were lucky. Their home survived, despite two houses burning to the ground just a street or two away.
But so many others were less fortunate.
Hundreds of people in and around Knysna have lost their homes, their businesses, their farms. Five people lost their lives.
That number will no doubt go up, as the losses in Knysna’s townships haven’t been accounted for yet. My mother says at least 80 homes burnt down in one township, some of them shacks, some of them brand new RDP houses built as part of the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme.
My heart breaks for everyone in Knysna who’s lost everything, and for everyone in the towns further along the coast as the fire continues to spread.
But in the aftermath of this horrific disaster, love, kindness and generosity are spreading too. From all over South Africa, people are coming to Knysna to bring food, clothes, supplies and support. Locals are opening their homes to strangers. Volunteers are going round rescuing pets that got separated from their owners.
Knysna’s spirit continues to burn bright.