News24 documentary captures intensity of devastating Cape Town wildfires
Ideas Blog | 16 March 2023
Mountain fires have become a common part of Cape Town life, but the devastating runaway fires that ignited on Sunday, April 18, 2021, changed the landscape of the popular tourist city irrevocably.
Fire crews battled two runaway fires for three gruelling days as gale-force winds, sweltering heat, and tinder-dry vegetation fanned the flames.
The fires quickly spread over the iconic Table Mountain and scorched roughly 600 hectares of land. News24, the largest digital news publisher in South Africa, deployed multimedia journalists to the firebreak alongside the firefighters.
The team filmed in severe conditions to provide frontline fire coverage to the publication’s readers. They shot footage of fire crews battling the blaze, evacuating residents in Vredehoek, and choppers carrying water to douse the flames.
“It was really tough conditions to film in. The wind was really fanning the flames, and there was smoke everywhere, but we felt it really important to get our own reporters on the ground and in the mix to get those hi-res, good-quality visuals,” said News24’s multimedia editor Sharlene Rood.
The fire spreads
On the second day of the fire, homes along the urban edge were urgently evacuated, leaving many residents filled with fear and anxiety as the flames moved closer to their doorsteps.
The Rhodes Memorial Restaurant and Tea Garden went up in smoke, and within hours, the fire had reached the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s upper campus.
Several UCT buildings caught fire, including student housing units and UCT’s Jagger Library, which housed some priceless cultural heritage.
The historic Mostert’s Mill, the only restored working windmill in South Africa at the time, was also gutted.
Cape Town was not out of the woods until day three, when firefighters managed to get the fire under control.
Anger and questions follow
And as Capetonians began to count the costs of the devastation, many angry residents began to ask questions and point fingers. Who was at fault? Was it homeless people? Government? University management? Table Mountain’s park officials?
Salvage operations swiftly began at UCT, while authorities started digging to determine the cause of the fires — and whether they could have been prevented.
With embers still smouldering on the mountainside, News24’s multimedia team started piecing together the dramatic visuals from the catastrophe, weaving together a gripping story.
“We were driven by the devastation and the heritage that was being lost, and we realised that we could do something bigger with our coverage,” Rood explained.
All hands on deck
The Cape of Flames documentary sought to answer some of the critical questions that emerged in the days following the blaze. News24 podcast producer Catherine Rice voiced the doc and interviewed various experts, including the vice-chancellor of UCT and an independent forensic investigator.
“We sprang into action. We made a document listing all the issues. We identified people we wanted to reach out to and whose voices we could include,” Rood said.
According to Rood, all footage was filmed in a week, but scripting and editing were more time-consuming.
Describing it as an incredible team effort, Rice said the team was able to create a timeline of the fire and capture the devastating aftermath through a “visually intense” story.
The documentary was released three weeks after the catastrophic fire. Both Rice and Rood believe that a combination of newsroom collaboration and quick output led to the documentary's success, which received 11,608 views with over 85,000 minutes viewed across News24’s platforms, YouTube, and OOVVUU.