For a few tense days, Beacon Island changed from a luxury resort into a de facto emergency relief centre as fires driven by gale-force winds raged across the Southern Cape’s Garden Route, destroying more than 600 structures in Knysna and Plettenberg Bay and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. The Western Cape government’s disaster management directorate said the effort to contain the inferno – one that involved 985 personnel, 78 fire vehicles and numerous military aircraft – was the single-largest deployment of firefighting resources in South Africa’s history.
During the week of 6-10 June, Tsogo Sun was proud to be able to offer assistance to the community when Beacon Island availed itself as an evacuation point for the stranded, assisted firefighting crews with drinking water, and distributed necessities to hard-hit members of the community. “It was like a movie,” the general manager, Reinhard Visser, recalled, praising his staff for their selfless work and saying that Tsogo Sun’s protocols for engaging with emergencies and business continuity management (BCM) had been put to the test under trying circumstances and found good.
Although the resort had not been in imminent danger given that it is situated on a coastal promontory and surrounded by water, Reinhard said at one point the blaze came as close by as two kilometres away and the thick smoke billowing in made a number of guests leave the premises temporarily. Drone footage of Plettenberg Bay and its coastline in the aftermath showed long swathes of duneland flora reduced to ash, expanses of scorched earth further inland, and pockets of immolation smouldering between rooftops in hilly residential areas.
What did affect the resort, however, was the havoc the fire wreaked with local service infrastructure. Power lines burnt away, causing electricity blackouts, and taps ran dry when the water supply was interrupted. This was evidently due to the strain of the firefighting operation; municipal water pipes were also said to have begun melting in the heat. At Plettenberg Bay Airport, flames encroached on the runway, leaving some of the BI’s departing guests in limbo because their flights were put on hold.
In response, Beacon Island reverted to using its on-site electricity generator. The resort was also amply stocked with candles and bottled water, emergency commodities that were flying off the shelves in the shops in town and in increasingly scarce supply among the community. As for the departing guests with nowhere to go, a plan was made and they were welcomed back to stay on at the resort.
But the biggest problem was that roads were being closed throughout Plettenberg Bay as well as the outlying areas where many of Beacon Island’s staff live, preventing off-duty employees from returning to work or, in some cases, on-duty employees from getting home.
“We had to make do with who we had,” Reinhard said. “Those who live close by to us came in and just worked through the night until the other staff members could come through when the roads opened again. For a while we were servicing rooms with only two housekeeping staff … You couldn’t get in, you couldn’t get out.”
Amidst the general disruption, Beacon Island became a refuge for the public. “People were using us an as evacuation point, particularly because we had a generator. At any given stage, we had about thirty to forty people here from the outside looking for shelter. We took in a lot who’d been left homeless by the fires in Knysna. Plettenberg Bay also set up areas where people could stay, and we supplied these places with linen, towels mattresses, bedding and whatever we could spare. As part of all of this, we donated a hundred toiletry packs to those who had been evacuated.”
All in all, how did Beacon Island fare? “We definitely rose to the occasion. You didn’t have to ask – everybody in our staff was jumping in and helping where they could. For instance, people were getting into their own cars, even our outsource partners, and going out to deliver bottled water to firefighters and people in town. It showed fantastic teamwork at the resort.”
And what was the main thing he and the organisation learnt as a result of the experience? “It was that the procedures and BCMs that Tsogo Sun puts in place for us in emergencies really do work well. These procedures assist in preparing us for electricity failures, water failures, fires and a whole list of other contingencies. You go through them day in and day out, but of course it’s not often that you get to try them out. So it’s good to know that when it’s crunch-time, you’re in an excellent position to deal with the worst that can happen.”