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Wildfires Kill 32 in South Africa - 2001-09-06

At least 32 people are dead and many injured in runaway fires in two of South Africa's provinces. The fires are reportedly contained but authorities warn that renewed high winds could cause further flare-ups. The highest number of deaths, 23 people, resulted from a fire in the Kruger National Park in Mpumulanga Province in the northeastern part of the country.

Relatives of those who died in the Kruger National Park fire are busy with the grim task of identifying their loved ones, many of whom were burned so extensively that police were unable to take fingerprints. Police had to warn relatives that their bitter task would be traumatic.

The fire began near the Pretoriuskop tourist camp in the southern region of the Kruger National Park and was fanned by hot dry winds that have been sweeping across South Africa, as they usually do at the end of the dry winter season. Park spokesperson William Mabasa says firefighters were severely hampered not only by the speed of the wind but by changes in wind direction. "Unfortunately, the situation could not be controlled because there was very strong winds," he said. "And unfortunately the wind was blowing from northwest to southeast, and it turned around and blew in the opposite direction and that caused a lot of confusion."

Most of those killed in the fires were grass cutters, people hired to cut grass that is then used for roof thatching in the tourist camps spread throughout the wildlife reserve. Many of the cutters, most of them women, fled when the fires threatened. Mr. Mabasa said it was those who fled, along with some of the park rangers who rushed to their rescue, who died. "Most of the survivors are the people who remained in the camp, and all of the people who ran away were discovered burnt up to a kilometer away from the camp," he said. "Probably as they saw the fire coming some of them tried to run away but because of the wind they couldn't outpace the [fire]."

The Kruger National Park is South Africa's premier wildlife reserve. At two million hectares, it is the size of Israel and has one million visitors each year. It is home to hundreds of species of wildlife and numerous plant species. The fire also claimed the lives of 20 elephants, several rhinoceros and some antelope as well as many from the smaller species such as tortoise and mongoose. The plant life usually recovers well from fire with some plant species dependent on fire for germination and propagation.

The second large fire occurred in Kwa-Zulu Natal province. The fire there took nine lives and cost the province millions of dollars in agricultural losses. Officials have warned that although both fires are now contained, renewed high winds could start them up again.