Fire! What do you save first?

Plett sunset

We’ve all been party to at least one discussion around what precious object we’d save if fire ever threatened our homes. Pets usually get a favourable mention, then maybe photo albums, passports, laptops, cameras, whatever. Fortunately, most of us never have to do it for real.

I now know the answer, because I had to make the decision for real, and the answer is my Rune. My wife and I had spent a couple of hours one Tuesday a few weeks ago shifting three of our bikes to our remote, secure storage unit 15 minutes away. It’s one of about 30 lock-up single-car garages, located on a farm, surrounded by grassland, complete with sheep, geese and exotic birds. The whole place is surrounded by fencing, with an electric gate. Seemed like a good solution.

We were chatting to our neighbours the very next afternoon and they mentioned that they’d just been helping their relatives evacuate their house on the Airport Road in the face of the advancing bush fire. That’s when I recalled that they farm the relatives owned was right next to our new storage facility!

Our own house had miraculously escaped being burned to the ground in a bush fire back in February – a fire that destroyed three other homes in the area and laid waste to thousands of acres of open land. This new fire was being driven by gale-force winds and was now threatening the western outskirts of our town. Our own house was reasonably safe, whatever happened, because all the surrounding vegetation had been burnt away in the previous fire. But the bikes…!

We collected my riding gear and hot-footed it over to the storage units. The glow of the approaching fire was clearly visible, albeit maybe a few kilometres away. We considered the logistics of moving all three bikes to a place of greater safety, but that was going to be quite an exercise as darkness fell and the temperature dropped. The wind seemed to be keeping the fire on a parallel path to the storage units, not on a direct path towards it.

Move all three? Leave all three? Move one? We decided to move one, and that was the moment of truth: we saved the Rune. I rode it past neighbouring farms, past the airport, the eerie glow of the bush fire acting as a backlight in the gathering gloom, Peter following in the bakkie. We left it in the car port of an apartment we have in a nearby golf estate and decided to risk leaving the Ducati and the TL in the storage unit.

We called the next day to check that they had survived the night, but the phone line was permanently busy. So we drove over and were relieved to see the storage area had escaped the fire, although several houses in the area had not been so lucky. We breathed a sigh of relief and decided to leave all the bike where they were for a few days.

Two days later, the fire came back – a fierce, raging tsunami of a bush fire, driven by winds of up to 150 km/h. It would claim seven lives and more than 500 houses as it swept from the western side of the town of Sedgefield to Plettenberg Bay, 50 kilometres to the east. Sadly, Ian Barnard, one of the four volunteer firefighters who’d saved our own home back in February, was badly burned in the fire, and a colleague of his died. The whole incident was classified as a national disaster for South Africa.

We still couldn’t reach our storage company by phone (it turned out the phone lines had been burned down) and so drove out to see the damage for ourselves. It dark now and that was one eerie drive. The Airport Road looked normal to start with, then we could see the smouldering tree trunks on both sides of the road: entire forests had been burned down, pine plantations and indigenous trees both. A road sign still burned on the right; a direction board was being locked by flames around its edges on the left; there was no one in sight.

The landscape has been changed so much that we drove past the storage area in the dark, not recognising any of the usual landmarks. Fearful that it had all burned down, we turned around and stared into the gloom, and there they were: 25-30 garages, still standing, seemingly untouched. In our headlights we could see that the grass had been burnt black, right up to the edges of the garages. The fire had burned out a few feet from the storage units, as you can see in the photo; the object on the left is a burnt-out freight container.

Pinedene

The next morning showed the full extent of the devastation: entire farms destroyed, houses gutted, vegetation burnt to a crisp. I’m happy to say that all three bikes were unmarked (the TL and Ducati in storage, the Rune on the golf estate).

Rune at Saarinen 3

But there was no getting away from the tragic loss of life, the hundreds of lost – and in many cases uninsured – homes. These losses hung like a pall over a dozen communities along the coast. And, as I was to learn, one motorcycle enthusiast whose extraordinary, unique collection was garaged only 800 metres from my two machines, had lost everything.

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