Wildfire Overtakes University of Cape Town Campus
Wildfire Overtakes University of Cape Town Campus

Wildfire Overtakes University of Cape Town Campus

Priceless collections of books, manuscripts, and personal papers have been lost.

Lisa Winter
Apr 19, 2021

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Update (April 20): Nature reports that in addition to the library, the botany building also suffered significant damage. UCT’s Plant Conservation Unit lost all of the fossilized pollen used to study climate change, along with photographs and slides that had not yet been digitized. The library is asking for anyone who has scanned or photocopied versions of any ruined materials to get in touch.

Over the weekend (April 17), a fire that began on Table Mountain adjacent to the University of Cape Town in South Africa spread down to the campus, causing 4,000 students to be evacuated. The fire could not be contained before it reached the campus library that is home to thousands of priceless original manuscripts and personal papers documenting African history. Until the fire is put out, officials will not be able to determine which collections have been lost.

“It was just flames everywhere. At one stage, I thought we were going to lose the entire campus,” Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato tells Eyewitness News.

The fire is believed to have been started inadvertently by a homeless man who left his fire unattended. High winds allowed for the blaze to move swiftly toward the UCT campus. It engulfed Jagger Library, where the irreplaceable historic writings and artifacts are housed. While some materials have been digitized, those that haven’t are at risk of being lost forever.

“At this stage, we can confirm the Reading Room is completely gutted and thankfully the fire detection system in place triggered the fire shutters, thereby preventing the spread of the fire to other parts of the library,” Ujala Satgoor, the executive director of UCT Libraries, says in a statement. “Some of our valuable collections have been lost, however a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter the building.”

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Because of the damage brought by the fire, classes will be canceled on Monday and Tuesday (April 19–20) with the campus libraries closed until further notice, the school reports. The students have been temporarily relocated to nearby hotels.

It is not yet known if any laboratories have been affected by the fire, but Latief Nashed, a chemistry student at the university, tells EWN that staying off campus has been disruptive. “We had a really bad experience. We have to go through deadlines, research.”

Overview of the wildfire that burned the University of Cape Town
REUTERS