JOHANNESBURG — Firefighters in Cape Town were battling a wildfire on Monday that had engulfed the slopes of the city’s famed Table Mountain and destroyed parts of the University of Cape Town’s archival library.
Helicopters dumped water on the area to try to contain the blaze, which began on Sunday and was most likely caused by an abandoned fire, according to South African National Parks officials. But as wind picked up strength overnight and fanned the flames, the fire spread to neighborhoods in the foothills of the mountain and forced some homes to be evacuated on Monday morning.
Anton Bredell, the minister in charge of environmental affairs and development planning for the Western Cape region, said in a statement, “The wind speed is expected to increase during the day, which may impact on the deployment of aerial firefighting.”
“The helicopters cannot fly if the wind is too strong and the visibility too poor, but the situation will be fully assessed,” he added. “It is going to be a very tough day.”
On Sunday night, the police arrested a man in his 30s in connection with new fires that were started on Table Mountain as the wildfire raged, according to Jean-Pierre Smith, a city councilman in Cape Town who sits on the mayor’s safety and security committee.
The wildfire began around 9 a.m. Sunday on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, one of the rugged ridges that form part of the iconic Table Mountain backdrop to Cape Town. Fanned by gusts of wind, the fire engulfed and destroyed a hillside restaurant before moving down to the university campus, which is largely built on the slopes of the mountain.
Several buildings, including a historic mill and the school’s library, which houses important archives and book collections, were soon on fire, and billows of thick white smoke rolled across the city. So far, there have been no deaths reported, but five firefighters have suffered injuries, according to officials.
Around 4,000 students were evacuated from campus residence halls on Sunday, according to Nombuso Shabalala, a university spokeswoman. The university announced on Sunday that it would suspend its operations until at least Tuesday.
Videos on social media showed scores of students, some clutching small bags, rushing from residence buildings as the fire engulfed the nearby hillside. Busisiwe Mtsweni, an undergraduate studying finance and accounting, was on the university’s upper campus at around noon when “everyone got into panic mode,” she said in a telephone call.
Sparks from the mountain set off smaller fires among the buildings, and billows of smoke made it difficult to breathe, she said. When Ms. Mtsweni and her friends made a dash to their residence to grab their belongings, they came across a student suffering what appeared to be an asthma attack and led her, coughing, away from the smoke-filled part of the campus, she added. Ms. Mtsweni was later evacuated by bus and spent the night in a hotel.
By Sunday evening, a special-collections reading room at the university’s library had been gutted by the blaze, according to university officials. The reading room housed parts of the university’s African Studies Collection — which includes works on Africa and South Africa printed before 1925, hard-to-find volumes in European and African languages, and other rare books — as well as a treasured film archive, according to Niklas Zimmer, a library manager at the university.
“Some of our valuable collections have been lost, however a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe,” Ujala Satgoor, executive director of libraries at the University of Cape Town, said in a statement.
While the university had recently begun a huge effort to digitize the school’s collections, only a “wafer thin” proportion of the special-collections archive had been transferred owing to the enormous volume of material and glacial pace of the work, said Mr. Zimmer, who has led that program. A single cabinet of microfilm, Mr. Zimmer explained, might take “an entire working lifetime” to process.
University officials said they were hopeful that the bulk of the archive — which is housed in two basement floors beneath the library and protected by a system of fire doors — may have been spared. But on Monday, as scholars and librarians waited to hear the extent of damage, many raised the possibility that the basement may have been flooded during the firefighting effort.
“Very unique things are likely gone,” said Sibusiso Nkomo, a history Ph.D. student who is a member of an interdisciplinary archival research unit on campus.
“We’ve lost valuable history that tells us where we’ve come from,” he added, noting that the mood among his colleagues was “traumatized and devastated.”
The wildfire is the latest in a series of devastating blazes that have swept through South Africa’s Western Cape province in recent years. In 2015, fires ripped through the outskirts of Cape Town for four days, destroying around 15,000 acres of land. Two years later, another wildfire tore through a coastal town in the province, Knysna, killing at least four people and forcing about 10,000 to evacuate their homes.
The massive wildfires have been fed by a combustible mix of fire-prone vegetation native to Southern Africa — known as fynbos — and particularly flammable tree species, like gumtrees and pines, that colonists imported to the Western Cape and that contribute to the accidental spread of fires.
To prevent uncontrollable wildfires, many ecologists have warned that national park officials need to conduct more frequent prescribed burns of the fynbos or intentionally light fires in areas where excess vegetation should be cleared. But in Cape Town, where the city’s edges have sprawled onto the mountain’s foothills, prescribed burns are particularly difficult, and park officials have faced resistance from residents who fear their homes could be accidentally destroyed.
“If it doesn’t burn, all the vegetation is just sitting there, and it’s just a matter of time,” said Dr. Alanna Rebelo, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in ecology at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. “We’ve had this huge bonfire just waiting to happen.”