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Wildfires rage through top South African tourist haven

Wildfires raged for a fourth day Wednesday through one of South Africa’s most popular international tourist destinations, destroying homes, a hotel and scorching thousands of hectares of spectacular scenery.

Firefighting teams and water-bombing aircraft were again in action as the flames swept down Cape Town’s southern peninsula, a mountainous spine of land running from the city to Cape Point, Africa’s most southwestern tip.

Hundreds of residents of upmarket villages dotted along both the Atlantic and False Bay coasts grabbed pets and valuables as they were evacuated overnight ahead of flames fanned by strong winds and record high temperatures.

A total of 13 homes have been destroyed or damaged by the fires, along with the five-star Tintswalo Atlantic Lodge perched on the edge of the ocean near the fishing port and commuter village of Hout Bay.

A German tourist staying in a rented house in the same area told eNCA television that he had a lucky escape in the early hours of Wednesday.

“I never experienced anything like this,” said the man, who gave his name only as Karl.

“When I saw (the flames) coming… I put my wife out of bed and we took what we could grab and went to the beach parking,” before being escorted to a rescue centre.

“We are very happy to be here because we are very well-kept and looked after,” he said.

Appeals for food and cash to help victims, evacuees and volunteer firefighters have had an overwhelming response, officials said.

“The fires are now threatening properties at Clovelly,” near Fish Hoek on the False Bay side of the peninsula, Onele Ndesi, spokesman for Cape Town Disaster Risk Management, told AFP.

No fatalities or serious injuries have been reported, but dozens of people have been treated for smoke inhalation.

A sudden wind change overnight brought flames bearing down on Kalk Bay, a fishing village known for its seafood restaurants and antique shops.

– Strong winds fan flames –

Schools were closed and traffic snarled as residents awoke to a rain of ash and smoke drifting across an armageddon-like red ball of sun.

“The area affected by the change in wind direction is from Kalk Bay, all around the mountain towards the Hout Bay area and then on the opposite side towards Tokai,” said Theo Layne of Cape Town Fire and Rescue.

Firefighters were hoping that a change in the weather would bring some relief after temperatures soared to 100-year highs of more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.

“Today we’re going to be having a little bit of a cooler day with expected rain, which is going to assist with damping or cooling down of the entire burnt areas,” Layne said.

The fire has ravaged some 4,000 hectares of flowering, shrublike vegetation known as fynbos, part of the unique Cape floral kingdom.

The fynbos-covered mountains and spectacular coastline are the backdrop to the annual Cape Town Cycle Tour, a 109 kilometre race around the peninsula, which is due to be held on Sunday.

The race is described as the “largest timed cycling event in the world”, and has drawn 35,000 entrants from South Africa and around the world this year.

Organisers were expected to announce this week whether the fires will force a change in the route.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said she was confident the fire would be out in time for the race to take place.

“It is known as the most scenic cycle tour in the world but now it will tour through some of the greatest devastation that the peninsula has ever seen, which will be heart-wrenching,” she said.