The fire started Sunday morning near the memorial to colonial leader Cecil Rhodes and quickly spread uncontrolled beneath Devil’s Peak in Table Mountain National Park in an area popular with weekend hikers and cyclists.
By Monday morning, strong southeasterly winds, which were expected to reach more than 30 miles per hour (50 km/h) later in the day, had pushed the fire toward densely-populated areas above Cape Town city. Well-known tourist sites, such as the Table Mountain aerial cableway, were temporarily closed.
Heavy smoke engulfed the city forcing the closure of a major highway and other nearby roads. Hikers, park visitors, visitors to the nearby Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and hundreds of students from the university campus were evacuated on Sunday.
More than 200 firefighters and emergency personnel, supported by four helicopters and a spotter aircraft battled the blaze, but the strong winds were hampering aerial support on Monday, the city’s disaster operations center said.
“Precautionary evacuations have gotten underway,” the operations center said in a statement.
Three firefighters were hospitalized with serious burns, said J.P. Smith, a Cape Town security official. No other injuries were reported.
SANParks, which operates South Africa’s national parks, said initial investigation indicated a homeless person started the fire accidentally. Police were also looking at the possibility of arson and a suspect in his 30s was being questioned, News24 reported.
Cecil Rhodes, a 19th century British colonial leader and controversial figure in South Africa, was a diamond magnate who grew his wealth through the labor of Black miners and then limited the amount of land they could own. His bust at a memorial for him on the slopes of Table Mountain was vandalized last year.
Windy conditions, a regular weather feature on the Cape Peninsula, caused the fire to spread and cross the M3 highway, which connects downtown Cape Town to the southern suburbs.
“One of the major contributors to the rapid rate of spread was the very old pine trees and their debris,” SANParks said in a statement. “The fire created its own wind that further increased the rate of spread.”
Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato said the flames damaged the Rhodes Memorial restaurant and Mostert’s Mill, South Africa’s oldest working windmill, which was built in 1796. A landmark on the M3 near the campus, the windmill’s thatched roof and four-bladed sails went up in flames as onlookers watched helplessly.
UCT officials said the Jagger Library, which houses priceless African studies collections, was among the buildings that burned.
“At this stage, we can confirm the Reading Room is completely gutted and thankfully the fire detection system in place triggered the fire shutters, thereby preventing the spread of the fire to other parts of the library,” said Ujala Satgoor, executive director of UCT Libraries in a statement.
“Some of our valuable collections have been lost, however a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter,” she said.
The library houses printed and audiovisual materials on African studies as well as 1,300 sub-collections of unique manuscripts and personal papers, more than 85,000 books and pamphlets on African studies and contains one of the most extensive African film collections in the world, according to the UCT website.
Photographs posted on social media showed parts of the library gutted and still smoldering and the burned Rhodes Memorial restaurant, which appeared to have exploded from the heat.
Wildfires are common in the national park lands that make up the heart of Cape Town, with high temperatures and strong winds contributing to the rapid spread of the fire.