By Monday, winds approaching 30 mph had pushed the fire toward densely populated areas above downtown Cape Town, forcing the evacuation of residents living along some edges of the park. Well-known tourist sites such as the Table Mountain aerial cableway and the nearby Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden were temporarily closed.
A line of thick smoke billowed along the edge of Devil’s Peak toward the top of the mountain above the city for most of the day, engulfing office buildings and the Cape Town port in a choking white cloud.
More than 200 firefighters and emergency personnel battled the blaze, while four helicopters and a spotter aircraft that assisted Sunday were grounded Monday because of the strong winds.
Three firefighters were hospitalized with serious burns, said J.P. Smith, a Cape Town city council member. No other injuries were reported.
At the University of Cape Town, known as UCT, officials inspected the damage to the historic Jagger Library, which contained rare collections of African books and archives.
“The library is our greatest loss,” the university’s vice chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, told a local radio station. “Some of these cannot be replaced by insurance, and that is a sad day for us.”
Ujala Satgoor, executive director of UCT Libraries, described how “some of us watched, from on-site, with horror and helplessness” as the building burned.
“At this stage, we can confirm the reading room is completely gutted,” she said. “Thankfully the fire detection system in place triggered the fire shutters, thereby preventing the spread of the fire to other parts of the library.”
Satgoor confirmed that “some of our valuable collections have been lost,” adding that “a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter.”
The library houses printed and audiovisual materials on African studies; 1,300 sub-collections of unique manuscripts and personal papers; and more than 85,000 books and pamphlets on African studies, including up-to-date materials and works on Africa and South Africa printed before 1925, according to the UCT website. It also contains one of the most extensive African film collections in the world, the website says.
Blade Nzimande, the South African minister of higher education, science and innovation, said the library housed the archives of the ruling African National Congress and publications from its years as an underground movement fighting South Africa’s White apartheid government. It was unclear whether the ANC archives were destroyed.
Professor Saul Dubow, a UCT graduate and honorary professor of African studies at UCT now based at Cambridge University, said the library contained the valuable Bleek and Lloyd collection of notebooks and drawings documenting the culture and history of the Indigenous San, or Bushmen, community.
“Of course, we don’t know what has been lost, but it’s safe to say 65,000 books and a huge number of manuscripts will be lost,” Dubow said.
Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato said the flames damaged the Rhodes Memorial restaurant and Mostert’s Mill, South Africa’s oldest working windmill, which was built in 1796. A landmark on the M3 highway near the campus, the windmill’s thatched roof and four-bladed sails went up in flames as onlookers watched helplessly.
Initial reports of fire damage at the Rhodes Memorial fueled speculation of arson because of protests in recent years against the colonial legacy of Rhodes, a 19th-century mining magnate who founded the global diamond giant De Beers and is a controversial figure in South Africa’s history. A statue of Rhodes at the Cape Town memorial was vandalized last year.
Rey Thakhuli, spokesman for SANParks, which operates South Africa’s national parks, said about 1.5 square miles (400 hectares) of land had been destroyed by the fire.
Windy conditions, a regular weather feature on the Cape Peninsula, caused the fire to spread and cross the M3 highway, which connects downtown Cape Town to the southern suburbs.
“One of the major contributors to the rapid rate of spread was the very old pine trees and their debris,” SANParks said in a statement. “The fire created its own wind that further increased the rate of spread.”
Photographs posted on social media showed parts of the library gutted and still smoldering, as well as the burned Rhodes Memorial restaurant, which appeared to have exploded from the heat.
Wildfires are common in the national park lands that make up the heart of Cape Town.