By Nic Bothma
Its all my wife’s fault. At 2am on a Sunday night I was woken by her exclaiming ‘aaargh ! the mountain is on fire’. I swore at her for waking me up and tried to go back to sleep. 5 minutes later cogs started turning in my head and I realised it was no time to sleep !
From my balcony I could see a massive swathe of red clouds from the light reflected from an entire mountain in flames as they raced over the mountain tops in a strong wind, it was dramatic, Armageddon like.
10 minutes later I was on my off-road motorcycle, a crucial piece of equipment on this story, and heading towards the light.
I followed ambulances into an old age home in the midst of an evacuation as the fire marched relentlessly towards them.
For the next week the fire raged on my back yard, so to speak, giving me a distinct ‘home game’ advantage. I know the areas around the mountains above my home well and using a motorcycle allowed me to get to where I thought would be best. The fire was burning on several fronts and establishing where the pictures would be was the challenge.
The scale and ferocity of this fire was unprecedented in Cape Town. The Cape is often referred to as the Cape of Storms as we are continually battered by strong winds. This wind causes a bush fire to rapidly turn into a raging, out of control inferno. The geography of Cape Town is also unique with mountain ranges meandering through communities making areas under threat varied and hard to predict.
Thick smoke filled valleys and gorges and motocross goggles and surgical masks were crucial pieces of equipment.
Social media on this story (and many others it seems these days!) did not really help in my opinion. In terms of the news reporting there were so many inaccurate posts with people saying ‘its all over we about to die’ but upon arriving at their locations I would find the fire still far away and not threatening at all! This happened all the time with panic and rumour thriving through the social networks actually impeding on the proper news reporting we needed.
Social media in my opinion was also to blame when some authorities did their best to block access to journalists. In this age of instant gratification, regardless of accuracy, everybody is a photographer, social media mayhem working as a bona fide journalist is difficult. At each police checkpoint they had already turned away a hundred ‘photographers’ wanting to get pictures of the fire so despite the correct credentials it was sometimes impossible to gain access.
On the fifth day I received a fine for ‘failing to comply with management authority’ as I accessed an area beyond a police cordon. I guess it was the authorities special way of saying thank you for the awareness spread by photojournalists during the week.
On the positive side, communities worked well together to co-ordinate their efforts through neighbourhood watch groups on radios liaising with rescue and fire personal to most effectively direct resources. Communities spontaneously started collection points for food and water to replenish the fire fighters who are largely made up of volunteers.
A very positive spin off from our work was seeing a massive outpouring of contributions to an elderly couple i photographed who had their entire home destroyed.
People phoned and mailed me for days asking for their contacts so they could donate. It felt good to have such a direct and positive effect from a picture.