Fires have been spreading in close proximity to the city since Sunday.
Wildfires have been ripping through peripheral parts of Cape Town, South Africa, since Sunday. As of Tuesday, more than 7,000 acres of land had been destroyed, according to NBC. Allafrica.com reported that at least five homes have burned, but the fires have yet to claim any lives. City officials are increasingly concerned, however, dispatching hundreds of additional firefighters to combat the flames, according to the Independent. Here are some gripping shots of what the blazes look like from the ground:
The proximity of the fires to central Cape Town have intensified the drama. Wildfires can inch close to cities; San Diego county battled a series of them in 2014. But they most often flare up in sparsely populated outskirts, and it is rare for a major urban hub like Cape Town to be so near to an encroaching wildfire. According to reports, the fires have reached Table Mountain, a popular hiking destination only about three and a half miles from the city's downtown area.
The coastal climate of the city is also complicating the ability of firefighters to contain the blazes. Gusty winds give longevity to wildfires, according to Rich Minnich, a professor at the University of California, Riverside's department of earth sciences. When wildfires spread, 90 percent of that growth is likely due to wind blowing the fire into unburned vegetation. Cape Town has a blustery climate because of its proximity to the Atlantic coast, which is pushing the wildfires along.
A NASA satellite image from Tuesday (above) pinpoints which areas of Cape Town—located on the southern peninsula—face the most damage. (The red dots represent all wildfires in 2015.) The city isn't facing one massive fire but a series of small burns on opposite ends of the city, bisected by a small mountain region.
Minnich, who specializes in wildfires, used NASA's map to interpret the burn patterns of the fires and the density of vegetation in their path (the lusher the vegetation a fire consumes, the more energy it emits). Minnich, being in the U.S., cautions that satellite imagery is useful for analysis—his computer software allows for a very close zoom—but has limitations. But fortunately for Cape Town, he sees a number of things that should keep the wildfires from becoming a catastrophe.
First, he sees weak vegetation in the path of the wildfires, so they may burn for some time but with diminishing ferocity. Secondly, human intervention is not always the most effective response to a wildfire. Most wildfires, Minnich says, are nature's way of shedding excess vegetation. So "if there's no one [in the fire's] path, the best thing to do is to just watch it burn," he explains. And in Cape Town right now, Minnich sees most of the wildfires burning in areas with little to no population. Last, because South Africa is in its summer season, winds almost always blow southeast to northwest, which will eventually carry the wildfires on the western cape out to sea.
Check out a time-lapse video of the fires spreading over more than two hours on Sunday below.