On Friday 19th July 2019, run away fires lept into Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary from 3 sides.
Our neighbours, Montigny Investments called midday Friday to notify us that a fire started on a private property to the west of Mlilwane had got into their forests and while they were fighting, they were losing the battle with the incredibly strong winds (67kmph) working against them. They advised the fire would soon be on Nyonyane Mountain (Execution Rock).
Our Conservation department raced out and worked magic keeping the fire out, with Montigny’s help and effective firebreaks. The fire travelled south down the firebreak through the pine forests.
During the late afternoon a new fire sprung up in the Malkerns sugarcane further south. This got away and jumped into the Montigny forest further south. This fire was in direct line with Mlilwane’s Rest Camp and of extreme concern. Our 84 guests staying at Mlilwane were notified to pack their belongings and be ready to evacuate.
Around 19h00, rangers noticed a new fire west of Reilly’s Rock on the Mlilwane Hill. It became evident that the only way this fire started was by an air-borne ember from the first fire, which must have flown right over Nyonyane Mountain. The fire gained momentum fast in the long grass and indigenous thickets, but the swift action and the existing firebreak brought it under control swiftly. There was still concern that the strong wind was blowing sparks into the forest around Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, and we notified our 14 guests to pack their belongings ready for evacuation. Some decided to leave immediately.
At approximately 21h30 the Head Ranger and Rest Camp Management called the evacuation of the 84 guests at Rest Camp and 45 at Sondzela Backpackers. Our Manager on duty, Ntsiki Ginindza, notified all guests in the restaurant, which was full at the time. She then manned reception, receiving accommodation keys and through receipt of all keys, knew all guests had evacuated. Our night watchmen then did the rounds to ensure guests had left. Management realised that guests might be disorientated and panicked in the dark, so opened the boom gate to allow guests to leave via the day access. We had 2 vehicles on this route ensuring guests knew where to go. A tour group had gone ahead and taken a wrong turn, but this was quickly seen and rectified.
Guests streamed out Sangweni Gate and every staff member was called to the fire – housekeepers, chefs, guides, labourers, managers – we were all there fighting for the beehives, which were a mere 60-odd meters from the flames.
Forest and Emergency teams had fought a gallant battle on the south western boundary, but again the winds prevailed, and the fire raced through our south western fence, across boundary fire breaks making short work of the grass plains and wreaked havoc in the eucalyptus forest, racing down to the Mhlambanyatsi River below Rest Camp. The wind had the fire cross the river in no time and the indigenous forest was alight, lifting the flames to dangerous heights, spewing sparks across the firebreak towards the beehives. The wind pulled the flames at last 6m across the firebreaks – never before have we been so grateful for firebreaks and for such dedicated staff. By 01h00 the fire was under control, but vigilance was held.
In the meantime, the fire had circled the camp and crossed to the Sondzela side, flying through the river thickets and grass plains. In fact, at one stage 3-4 separate fires had started from flying embers on the southern plains. With a huge amount of luck and grace and the help of neighbours, our conservation team got on top of these fires before midnight and some guests returned for the night.
At 01h30, the wind whipped up the fire behind Reilly’s Rock and a team set about it, saving Reilly’s Rock a second time, while the fire headed up the eastern slopes of Nyonyane Mountain, caught again by firebreaks. The first fire had now jumped the fence and wrapped around the northern slopes of Nyonyane, burning a lot of the ridge.
The emotional impact experienced, thinking we were finally winning the battle with one fire, when a message came through of yet another, was inexplicable. It was a constant theme that night, a true test of endurance of both mental and emotional grit. There is no doubt that without our firebreaks and our incredible staff, we would have lost all three camps. The conservation team got to bed well after 03h00, leaving individuals to stand sentry on any fires.
Saturday morning Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary normalised. The wind had graciously removed all residual smoke, leaving individual plumes of smoke rising from burning logs. Shonalanga Plains, the southern Sondzela plains and half the Central plains were charred. Arriving through the main Sangweni Gate, through the Mphumalanga Plains, baffled people – it looks like no fire had touched Mlilwane.
Rangers set about opening roads, removing fallen trees and patrolling the river banks. A number of casualties were found, especially nyala which sought refuge in the thickets and were trapped. The true impact may never be known, with small mammals, reptiles, birds, insects and flora untallied. For the most part though, the herds are back on the plains, both burnt and those untouched by fire. Guests have extra interest in their activities, marvelling at the impact of the fires, and how relaxed the wildlife appears to be. It is a dramatic scene.
The Management of Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and Big Game Parks would like to thank all our staff for their incredible dedication and commitment to saving Mlilwane on Friday night. We would also like to thank our guests for remaining calm and cooperating with our staff. We would also like to thank all those who sent messages and well wishes post-fire – we are for the most part safe and back to normal, thank you!