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The viciousness of the fires that ravaged the Eastern and Western Cape this winter brought to mind the fury of the flames of hell. Some victims described to us how they watched, helplessly, as 50-foot high flames (15 m) marched inexorably onto their properties, their precious homes, at relentless speed, devouring and killing everything in their path. In terrible, screaming agony the life was sucked out of people, pets, livestock. The deepest gorges and ravines couldn’t stop the beautiful, terrifying tide.
Louise Spenser, The Salvation Army Envoy at Greenbushes Corps (church), Port Elizabeth, accompanied the Reporter to see the devastation in the Van Stadens, Woodridge and Thornhills area where we met families who had lost everything, including loved ones in one instance!
With sleeves rolled up and helping wherever needed, Envoy Louise was leading by example, working for hours beyond exhaustion, labouring side-by side with other non-profit organisations and individual community members to bring relief to those affected. It was a phenomenal example of Christian generosity, sharing the heartbreak, giving to the dispossessed, taking responsibility for helping put right the almost irreparable damage that had been done.
An unstoppable force
On the Corson farm in Van Stadens, 55 km west of Port Elizabeth, where Janine (48), Gary (49) and their two daughters (25 and 21) have lived a wonderful outdoor life for the past eight years, the nightmare started on Wednesday June 7. “While the wind was gusting ferociously, my main concern was falling trees,” said Janine. “One had already split and a part had fallen on the house. Being part of a community ‘Whatsapp’ group, Gary had heard about the fast-moving Crossways fire just 4 km away so came home to check the situation.
“At first we were not too concerned, assuming the fire would be stopped by the deep gorge on the mountain. However, as a precaution, we called our girls in town to come and help pack things like laptops, hard drives, essential clothes, and so on. Gary and I also wet the house and surrounds with water from the pool. Suddenly the wind changed direction and the raging fire jumped the gorge.
“Overcome with fear we knew we had to get away – fast. A neighbour helped get the horses and pigs to safety. Sadly we could not save all the chickens. By the time I managed to put all the pets in our vehicle – dogs, cats, birds – the fire had invaded our property. Within minutes our beautiful 3-bedroomed wooden home was aflame. As we fled for our lives, in our rear view mirrors all we saw was a violent fire devouring everything in its way. I wept when I realised two of my beloved cats were still in the house.
“The road was choked with black smoke, sparks were flying everywhere. We got to the end of the dirt road and spent the rest of the night there, in the car, with our pets. We retuned the next morning and were overwhelmed by the devastation. It was like a scene from Mars. Everything flattened and buried in thick black soot. Our beautiful
farm, our beloved home, the verdant trees, the fynbos, our veggie garden.
All gone. Even the fences. Only the concrete house foundations remained. My racking sobs broke our silence of shock.
“The community’s generosity has been astonishing. We’ve received clothing, bedding, food, a make-shift Wendy House we’re now using as a bathroom. Farmcomm Neighbourhood Association donated a caravan to sleepnin and a tent we use as a kitchen.
“We are truly blessed. How do you begin to thank everyone?” questioned Janine. “At times it’s difficult to stay positive … moments when our loss is like a physical pain. We’re not sleeping well and the slightest breeze makes us anxious. Our biggest challenge now is to get materials for fencing for our animals’ safety and to get our house built – out of bricks this time! We’ve started a new veggie patch and are cleaning the debris. Forest and fynbos make fires a constant threat here and the drought-induced water shortage doesn’t help.”
Tragic death of beloved parents and grandparents
Brothers Wayne and Garth van der Riet and their young families who farm in Thornhill suffered the most tragic loss imaginable when the brothers’s parents, who lived on an adjacent farm, were trapped and killed by the fire.
“The fires had been burning since Wednesday, June 7,” Wayne recounted emotionally. “We’d been keeping an eye on the blaze and it was now Saturday afternoon. The strong wind had been blowing away from our farms but by mid-afternoon it had picked up, changed direction, and in no time at all the run-away fire was on our parents’ doorstep. My mum (72) phoned us to report that she and Dad (73) were trapped: the garage roof had collapsed on their car so there was no way to escape.
“Garth and I ran to help but by now the fire had reached our gate and everything on their property was burning. Flames 40-50 feet high (12-15 metres) were jumping on the road between our farms and a solid wall of fire prevented us from getting to the folk. A tree had fallen on my mum, trapping her. It was a nightmare. My son Josh could hear his gran’s screams for help. But we couldn’t save her. She burnt to death. Garth managed to get through the flames and drag Dad to safety. The old man kept crying ‘Mum’s gone, she’s dead. I couldn’t save her’. Dad was badly burnt and passed away the next in time: we found the car keys in the ignition. They were taken 20 years too early,” said Wayne struggling to control his distress. “Losing both parents is heart-breaking − and our kids’ grief at the loss of their grandparents is gut wrenching.”
The fire caused extensive damage to the van der Riet Senior farm. The flames tore through it, devoured everything – the house, vehicles (car, tractor, trailer, truck) and all the equipment in the mechanical repair workshop where both brothers worked and where gas and acetylene cylinders exploded, adding to the destruction. Both sons are devastated: they’ve lost their beloved parents, their livelihood, and 14 of their much cared-for cattle.
“What’s left of the house will need to be demolished,” says Wayne. “And there’s no insurance on the farm.” Grief-stricken he comments “My dad started off in a caravan, this has gone full circle.”
Good samaritans at work
A small team of Good Samaritans have been working tirelessly with Envoy Louise Spenser to assist families who lost everything in the recent Port Elizabeth fires. It includes Elzabe Boshoff of St George’s College and Rev Matthew Calitz and his lovely wife Delene, caretakers at Hebron − a mission farm and small conference facility belonging to African Evangelistic Band (AEB) near Woodridge. The fire disaster saw Hebron accommodate 20 relief fire-fighters from Mpumalanga, 56 Woodridge ground staff displaced by the fires, and 20 of their own ground staff who lost their homes and moved into their temporary Wendy House accommodation.
Rev Matthew reports: “The fires became ever more frightening as they seemed to surround the area. A Community Chat Group was started to keep track of where they were spreading and offer assistance where needed. The furious fire had jumped the gorge and the wind was pumping up to 100 kph, fanning the fire towards the Woodridge Riding Club. People and horses needed to be evacuated. Ten minutes after we’d rescued 30 horses, the fire reached the mission. We swiftly crammed the car and trailer with survival packs, plus our beloved pets − cats, dogs, geese, two parrots, two pigs − and set off to spend the night with relatives in PE. I was terrified the fire would jump the N2 opposite Hebron, which appeared likely, and that the strong wind would flip the trailer. We were blessed! Neither happened and we got to safety.
“When we returned the next day, we found that the fire had stopped literally five metres from the mission hall and one metre from our house. Sadly we lost 15 hives of bees and all the trees behind the house were scorched from the heat. We stood together, held hands and prayed.”
When half of Woodridge College burnt down, Elzabe quickly helped organise accommodation for hostel pupils and ground staff at St George’s College who’d been left homeless.
“When the fires hit PE,” Elzabe explained, “we set up a Community Chat Group on Facebook and a network of charities got into action, helping to collect, sort and distribute donations of clothing, bedding, and food to those affected by the fires.”
Twelve underprivileged and uninsured families in the Thornhill, Rocklands, Van Stadens and Witteklip areas lost everything, including their incomes, which their staff also lost. Elzabe immediately headed up an informal committee, Project 12, for those who wished to donate. “We assessed the damage and the needs of those affected in the entire area” she reported, “to ensure that donations were allocated fairly and reached those they were meant for – all uninsured private people. Aid is apportioned according to their financial and physical capabilities of recovery on their own. We still need construction materials so that people can start rebuilding their homes. We will work with them until their houses are built.”
Without the team’s tireless efforts, the devastation wrought by these raging infernos could have been so much worse.
When retirement equals hard work
About five years ago Commissioners Trevor and Memory Tuck, now in their early 70s, retired. They soon missed their busyness so offered their help where needed. They were placed at the Citadel Corps in Sidwell, one of Port Elizabeth’s poorest and seediest areas. The church, is surrounded by brothels, drug lords and a dwelling for practicing Satanists. Built in 1904, it needs major repairs.
“When we arrived, only six people attended the Sunday service,” remarked Commisioner Tuck. “Today we have 45, and 15 kids at Sunday school. To reach out to the impoverished community we walked the streets, inviting people to join our Sunday service. They came. Prostitutes. Drug addicts. All sorts. If they were coming to hear the Word of God they were welcome. The local fire department and police force are also now good friends.
“On Wednesdays we have Home League, which gives all women the chance to enjoy a programme of fellowship, education, service and worship. And on Thursday nights an astonishing number join us when we serve coffee on the street corner − from broken homes, homes where there’s abuse, alcoholism and drugs. For a while they can be free and find peace.
The Tucks put up a prefab cabin for Bible study and Sunday school, which they also hold in the local park occasionally. This lively event, with strumming guitars and hearty singing, always attracts a crowd, including the loitering kids who are encouraged to join in. Food and clothes are handed out to the needy.
People are hungry to learn about God. One female, quite cheeky and aggressive, kept coming to church so Comm. Memory made a point of chatting to her. She confessed that she had been a prostitute, but wanted to become a Christian and be saved. The Commissioner assured her The Salvation Army does not judge and welcomed her into the church. Today she never misses the weekly Bible study or Sunday service and got gloriously saved.
“ There’s still so much to be done, so much we need,” says Comm. Tuck wistfully. “We’ve been burgled twice and had everything stolen. How can we think of ‘taking it easy’ as people are always urging?”
No secret ballot needed
For 134 years, since February 1883 in fact, there’s been one organisation in South Africa that everyone can trust implicitly − The Salvation Army. No matter what colour your skin, your language choice, your political preference, your religious background, or sex category, if you need help − practical, emotional or spiritual − The Salvation Army will do whatever we can to alleviate your plight. We make no judgements, no demands. We stand by our credo: ‘Heart to God, hand to man’.
And we have a leader who is beyond reproach. A supreme being who continually sheds light and love throughout the world. Who has given His life for us. And created the Christian principles of honesty and openness − a transparency that has no room for secrecy to hide a shame.
So while our country has been literally burning, The Salvation Army has not been fiddling in the background, thinking of superfluous issues. We who are dedicated Salvationists have been right there, fighting the Hell that has scourged vast swathes of our land.
And while people who have lost everything are going to need exceptional faith to build up their lives again from the ashes, we will continue to help wherever needed. Caring for the littlest ones in children’s homes, crèches and nursery schools, for adults in family care centres, shelters, homes for the elderly and rehab facilities, offering health services, feeding schemes and outreach programmes.
Doing God’s work in these trying times means we continue to be relevant while honouring and remaining true to our beliefs. Ah yes, you can openly vote for The Salvation Army, knowing that your trust will be respected and cherished.