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Wildfires Threaten Vineyards in South Africa's Stellenbosch

Winemakers battled the blaze overnight on Simonsberg mountain, with some reporting damage to vines
Photo by: Courtesy Gyles Webb/Thelema
A wildfire burns on Simonsberg mountain in Stellenbosch. Winemakers helped battle the blaze all night.

James Molesworth
Posted: January 20, 2016

This story was updated on Jan. 21.

Staff members at several prominent wineries on the famed Simonsberg mountain in South Africa's Stellenbosch district have been battling a large wildfire that erupted yesterday. Local news reports estimate at least 2,000 acres have been damaged so far, with parts of the fire still not contained.

"It was a crazy, hectic night," said Miles Mossop, winemaker at Tokara winery. "The fire started over the mountain from us at around 10:30 a.m., and about 5 p.m. was looking like it might come under control. But within the next two hours it was raging out of control. Thelema [which neighbors Tokara] lost one vineyard and had damage to a couple of others. We at Tokara were lucky and managed to keep it away. It moved on through Rustenberg, which lost at least one vineyard that I saw burn."

"The whole of the Simonsberg seems to have gone up in flame," said Luke O'Cuinneagain, winemaker at Glenelley, who was helping his neighbors battle the blaze. "Vineyards have been damaged by the fire, but I can't give exact details at this stage on the extent of the damage. On a personal front, Glenelly was well away from it, and the prevailing winds kept any smoke away from us as well."

The fire has since moved around the mountain in the direction of Paarl, with more wineries in its path, including Delheim, Kanonkop and Warwick. "Almost the whole of Simonsberg's natural vegetation has burnt and the fires are still burning,” said Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop. "We are trying to keep it out of the vineyards, but strong winds makes it difficult. We have lost some vineyards, but I do not have an exact area at this stage."

So far there have been no reports of loss of life or damage to buildings. Most of the burned land was covered with fynbos, a native vegetation.

Wildfires on the Western Cape are a common threat, with dry, hot weather and strong winds providing ideal conditions for their start and spread. A separate fire broke out in the nearby Elgin Valley last week and has since been extinguished. Damage reports say more than 7,000 acres were burned, including a vineyard owned by Ross Gower Wines. Last year, a weeklong fire threatened Constantia and Cape Point vineyards, scorching over 12,000 acres of land.

Gyles Webb/Thelema
The fire burned through large swaths of land on Simonsberg, including some vineyards.

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