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Rising from the ashes: Wupperthal residents look to rebuild after fire

Community members say that while they are still struggling to accept that scores of families lost everything in the blaze, they are grateful that nobody died.

Wupperthal residents Johannes and Daphne Salomo stand in front of the remains of their home. The house was built by Johannes father nearly a hundred years ago. Picture: Bertram Malgas/EWN

CAPE TOWN - On the inside, residents of Wupperthal are hurting.

Despite the pain, they welcome me to their small village tucked away in the Cederberg mountains.

The people of the fire-stricken community greet me with a smile, a wave and a "Welkom".

The fire swept through the community on 30 December, destroying 53 houses and five businesses.

A school, clinic, church, a handful of houses and the Rooibos Tea Company were the only buildings spared.

Locals say that the blaze started about a hundred metres away from the Wupperthal Butchery, where a small group of men tried to smoke out a bee hive to get honey.

The flames then rapidly spread to a grove of palm trees due to windy conditions, making its way to a shop and then to people's homes.

Community members say that while they are still struggling to accept that scores of families lost everything in the blaze, they are grateful that nobody died.

Eyewitness News spent several hours in the Overberg town, 16 days after tragedy struck, to find out how residents were coping with rebuilding their lives.

It's more than two weeks later, and the potent stench of charred debris still hangs in the air.

GALLERY: 53 homes destroyed in Wupperthal Fire

At number 12 Tra Tra Street, 71-year-old Nolene Salomo climbs a set of concrete steps that lead to the remains of the home that she was born in, saying that it was her only connection to her late parents.

She takes slow, careful steps as her scorched valuables make a crunching sound under her feet.

"My skottel!" the emotional woman exclaims, pointing to one of only a few recognisable items on the floor of what was her stoep.

Salomo tears up as she explains how events transpired on the afternoon of Sunday, 30 December.

"I smelled smoke and within moments, I saw what looked like fireballs being shot towards our houses. I was so scared. I managed to grab a pillow case and emptied a drawer with my ID book and other important documents into it. I feel so hurt."

The so-called fireballs were bits of ignited palm tree leaves blowing in the wind.

Fortunately, Salomo's in-laws' home a short distance away from hers was spared the tragedy, now giving her a roof over her head.

Many of us would take mundanities such as showering for granted but for Daphne Salomo, it is what she'll miss the most about her home.

Daphne and her husband, Johannes Salomo, lost everything but the clothes on their backs. Only unstable walls are left of their home, which had two bathrooms - one of which had a shower.

The sobbing woman, who lives in a friend's vacant house in the area, says that she now washes herself using a bucket.

Johannes, who managed to only save his two rifles locked away in a safe, says that his father built their house with his bare hands more than a hundred years ago.

He hopes to rebuild a home for his family but says that for now, he is taking it day by day.

WATCH: Wupperthal fire: 53 houses destroyed and 200 residents displaced

A large white marquee tent has been erected on an open piece of land opposite the entrance to Wupperthal.

On entering the tent, one is stunned by the never-ending stacks of neatly folded blankets and towels.

Cardboard boxes and black bags filled with shoes, clothes and toys are piled up high, leaving little walking space in the gigantic temporary structure.

People can be seen entering with suitcases, fitting on shoes, scrummaging and selecting items from clothing piles, some arranged according to size and age group. Those who lost their suitcases in the fire, stuff the most they can get into a plastic shopping bag.

Co-ordinator in the donation tent, Zelda Blaauw says that the support that Wupperthal has received from across the country is overwhelming.

"This really is much appreciated. Who would have thought all these things would be donated to Wupperthal. People are thankful... they've lost everything."

Barend Salomo owned the Wupperthal Butchery, one of at least five businesses gutted in the blaze.

"What's sad is that scores of Wupperthal residents lost not only their homes along with all their belongings but their jobs too," he says.

A bakery, cafe and the Red Cedar Cosmetics company are also among the businesses destroyed.

Salomo stands on the stoep of what is left of his butchery, nothing more than four unstable walls and a window frame. The stench of rotten meat has attracted swarms of flies.

He looks through a broken glass window, recalling everything he has lost.

"The scale, the wrapping machine, seven fridges... they are gone! Here's only dust... nothing at all. We now have to start from scratch and I still believe that God is able to help us rise from the ashes and build new possibilities for Wupperthal," says Salomo.

Meanwhile, learners in Wupperthal will only start the 2019 academic year on Monday, 21 January due to the school hostel being destroyed, affecting about 150 schoolchildren.

The Western Cape Education Department has made alternative arrangements to accommodate hostel learners in various facilities in the area. Officials are also in the process of procuring mobile ablution facilities.

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