The tragedy of a house on fire is not an unusual experience for Pinelands residents. With the large number of thatched houses, fire prevention and fire services have been an essential part of Pinelands since the late 1930s. It is incredible to think that prior to that there were no fire hydrants in Pinelands. When Fire Brigade services were introduced, fire hydrants with hoses and nozzles were placed at strategic points in the town.
The first Fire Brigade consisted of volunteers who trained under the Cape Town Fire Brigade. Male residents were expected to turnout every alternate Saturday for a fire drill. A ship’s bell on the corner of Peak Drive and Central Avenue served as a warning bell in case of a fire. This amateur brigade was soon put to the test when a fire broke out in a house belonging to a Mr. Steytler. They quickly and successfully put out the fire before it spread beyond the kitchen, where it started.
In 1939 Pinelands became eligible for full firefighting services from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. One of the great problems they had to contend with was the spread of fires by sparks. One such incident was in 1949, with the setting alight of numbers18, 20 and 22 Broadwalk Square and 6 Serpentine, all from a single fire started in the backyard of a nearby vacant house. Firemen from Cape Town, Salt River and Wynberg battled to extinguish the flames.
Seven months later, sparks from a bush fire destroyed a house in the Dell in only thirty minutes. The sparks from this house jumped one hundred and fifty feet to set a house in Forest Drive alight. The owners were away at the time and returned to a gutted house. In 1950 a house in Forest Drive was destroyed by fire.
In January 1959, number 2 Forest Drive was engulfed by a blaze set alight by sparks from a bush fire near the Raapenburg Station subway behind the Helen Keller Hostel. The daughter of the owner was due to be married 6 days later but lost her bridal trousseau. Neighbours and passers-by helped save furniture and carried the items to a garage over the road. However, it was later found that some the furniture never reached the neighbours’ garage! A neighbour assisting in fighting the fire fell off the roof and was taken to hospital with a back injury. The fire at number 2 spread to 1 Links Drive causing severe damage and to 2 Forest Place but causing limited damage.
In 1960, sparks from a hedge set a Wendy house alight at 14 Letchworth which in turn set the shingle roof on fire at number 10. The spark from the shingle roof set the thatch roof alight on a house on the opposite side of the road. Luckily quick action by three neighbours who climbed onto the thatch roof were able to put the fire out with a hosepipe. One of the neighbours fell two storeys from the roof and was taken to hospital but only suffered cuts and bruises.
A family made a lucky escape when a short circuit in the roof of the thatch house in Elizabeth Ave opposite Coronation Park caused a fire in 2011. The first fire engine was on the scene within minutes. However it took three fire engines, a water tanker and a rescue vehicle with 19 firefighters working for 10 hours to put out the fire. A second thatch roof caught fire but was quickly extinguished.
House fires have been started for a number of reasons. In Ridgeway a house caught fire from an acetylene torch spark used by thatchers. A thatch house in Peak Drive was gutted while being re-thatched but no work was being carried out at the time, being a Sunday.
Two shingle roof Pinelands houses have been destroyed by fires started by lit cigarettes. A house in Brookdale was started by a smoker falling asleep with a lighted cigarette, while in Mimosa Way a granddaughter hid a lit cigarette in a drawer when called away by her grandfather.
There are only two recorded deaths from fires in Pinelands. The first was an 85-year-old long-time resident who died in a house fire in Rustenburg. The second fatality was a 79-year-old gentleman when an old age home in Cedar Ave caught fire. After the fire was extinguished, he was found still sitting in a chair.
In 2010 a fire in Bien Donne confirmed the owner’s suspicions regarding his tenants who fled after the blaze and could not be contacted. Investigations found that despite the house being rented to Mr Wang and sister with her boyfriend, it was in fact being used as a brothel by three young petit Asian ladies who always wore negligees and spoke no English. In the late 1980s the Pinelands Town Council tried to offer a rates rebate for thatched houses to encourage owners not to change their roofing material, but this was disallowed by the Provincial Government. Since 2015 thatched houses in the heritage Overlay Zone are not permitted to replace the thatch roof with other material