Wildfires: ‘What did we do to deserve such suffering?’

A 25-year-old Free State farmer, Tewie Nel, who was seriously injured while fighting fires in the province. Photo: Supplied

A 25-year-old Free State farmer, Tewie Nel, who was seriously injured while fighting fires in the province. Photo: Supplied

Only God can save us now, says a Free State farm worker who nearly lost his life in a fire that has ravaged more than 100 000 hectares of pastures, allegedly after it was started during a service delivery protest.

“We have nothing left. What did we do to deserve such suffering?” asks Johnny Kleingeld from Hertzogville. He tells Food For Mzansi he lost all his possessions while trying to fight the devastating fire caused by protestors who initially set tyres alight.

Free State Agriculture (FSA) says it is one of the worst fires in the last five years. Since it started on Monday, large numbers of livestock, game and houses have been destroyed.

Today 17 people appeared in the Hertzogville Magistrate’s Court on charges of public violence and malicious damage to property. A 25-year-old farmer, Tewie Nel, is currently fighting for his life in a Bloemfontein hospital after he sustained third-degree burns after he was trapped while trying to extinguish the flames.

Nel’s father, Gerhard, told TimesLive that his son was on a ventilator after he inhaled smoke. If he survives, he will need skin transplants because he currently has no skin left on his arms and legs. Other helpers were also injured.

Operation manager of Free State Agriculture, Dr Jack Armour. Photo: Supplied

Dr Jack Armour, FSA operations manager, suspects that severe heat and strong winds in the Free State during the last few days made matters worse. The fire crippled many towns, including Boshof, Dealesville, Hertzogville and Hoopstad.

“Cattle ran seven farms, in some cases, to escape from the fire,” says Armour. “Although there was no loss of life, we are aware of farmers who sustained severe burns and we wish them a speedy and quick recovery.”

Armour confirmed to Food For Mzansi that the fires are currently under control, although the western part of the Free State remains at risk due to a heat wave in the area. “We welcome that SAPS has already investigated a case of arson and (some of the) accused have already been arrested. We cannot allow farmers and farm workers’ lives to be placed at risk.”

Urgent call for government support

Meanwhile South Africans have started opening their wallets to assist those in need. FSA gave R100 000 from their disaster relief fund to transport donations to farmers in need while Agri SA pledged R300 000.

Willem Symington, head of Agri SA’s disaster management unit, says FSA and Agri Northern Cape are conducting a survey at grassroots level to determine the full extent of the damage. “The most urgent need is to provide assistance to farmers in repairing infrastructure such as fences to secure livestock that had fled during the fires. Stockfeed, as well as the transportation thereof, is critical.”

Jan van Niekerk, leader of the FF Plus. Photo: Supplied

According to FF Plus leader Jan van Niekerk farmers will not be able to recover from the millions of rands of damage unless they are supported by government.

The DA in the province also echoed Van Niekerk’s sentiments in a letter to the premier, Sisi Ntombela. A state of disaster should be declared, believes the DA, to facilitate the allocation of urgent resources.

The DA also welcomed the request by the parliamentary portfolio committee on agriculture, land reform and rural development to minister, Thoko Didiza, to similarly declare these areas as disaster-ridden.

TLU SA has issued a list of items that farming communities are in need of, including broad-spectrum antibiotics and other veterinary medicine, energy licks like molasses meal and/or lick blocks, and hay, crop stover, maize and any roughage. Any available grazing is also needed as well as poles, wire and fencing material to repair damaged infrastructure, and plastic pipes for water reticulation.

Huge fire damage in Northern Cape

Mase Manopole, Northern Cape MEC for agriculture, environmental affairs, land reform and rural development. Photo: Soraya Crowie/Supplied

Meanwhile the Northern Cape MEC for agriculture, environmental affairs, land reform and rural development, Mase Manopole, tells Food For Mzansi that they were informed of veld fires in the Frances Baard district, especially around Jan Kempdorp and Warrenton. Farmers here have also lost properties, livestock and grazing land.

Manopole says her department will release emergency fodder to assist affected farmers to feed their animals. “Extension officials have already been dispatched to carry out an assessment of the blemish and profiling of the affected farmers. The department has also engaged organised Agri Northern Cape, Saam Werk Saam Trek, Nafu and Afasa for a coordinated response.”

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