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Wildfire tears down South Africa's iconic Table Mountain, guts historic University of Cape Town library

Cape Town, South Africa — Fire crews worked for a third day to extinguish a wildfire on the slopes of Cape Town's Table Mountain on Tuesday as the city came to terms with the damage caused by what officials have described as one of the area's worst blazes in years. About 90% of the fire had been contained, the Table Mountain National Park authority said, but only after firefighters worked through the night.
 
Those firefighters faced "extreme circumstances," said the Working on Fire organization, which specializes in dealing with wildfires and has been helping the city's fire department. The operation on Table Mountain had now reached the "mop-up" stage, Working on Fire said.

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A helicopter flies near a smoke cloud due to a forest fire burning out of control on the foothills of Table Mountain, above the University of Cape Town, in Cape Town, South Africa, April 18, 2021. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty

Fire-fighting helicopters were dropping water on areas where the fire still smoldered and smoked on the rocky peaks of Table Mountain. South African army choppers had joined the operation to support the fire department after the helicopters were all grounded Monday because of strong winds.

The wildfire started early Sunday and, fueled by strong winds, ripped down and across the slopes of the mountain toward residential areas overlooking downtown Cape Town.
 
Neighborhoods were evacuated on Monday and people weren't yet able to return home. Firefighters mostly kept the flames at bay and away from homes — sometimes with just a few yards to spare. Around 250 firefighters were mobilized.

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Firefighters try, in vain, to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town, after a forest fire came down the foothills of Table Mountain, setting university buildings alight in Cape Town, South Africa, April 18, 2021. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty

The University of Cape Town campus was one of the first sites to be hit on Sunday and appears to have suffered the most damage. Numerous buildings at the university burned, including part of a near 100-year-old library containing rare books and manuscripts on African studies. The university said some of those "priceless" works had been lost, but it was unclear yet how much.
 
Other historic buildings nearby, including a 225-year-old windmill and a restaurant near a memorial to British colonial politician Cecil Rhodes, also burned down.

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This picture taken in Cape Town on April 18, 2021 shows the wreckage of Mostert's Mill, a historic windmill built in 1796, as a forest fire burns out of control on the foothills of Table Mountain, above the University of Cape Town in South Africa. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty

The South African government said a residence owned by its Department of Public Works and Infrastructure was completely destroyed by the fire. The house was empty at the time but family members of a national minister and two deputy ministers had to be evacuated from their homes nearby.

Around 1,482 acres of land had burned, the Table Mountain National Park authority estimated. It said it would take days to completely put out the fire. 

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Firefighters check a burnt house, used as a University of Cape Town students' residence, as a forest fire burns out of control on the foothills of Table Mountain, above the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, April 18, 2021. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty

The cause of the blaze is still unknown, although wildfires are reasonably common in the mountains and peaks around Cape Town during the hot, dry summer months and become especially dangerous and unpredictable when fueled by strong coastal winds, as happened on Sunday and Monday. 

Four firefighters were hurt battling the fire but no other casualties have been reported.

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