Miracles and Hope amidst Betty’s Bay Fires

Betty’s bay is my husband’s “happy place”. He has spent many happy holidays with his family at their holiday home right on the rocks in Sunny Seas at DeWetsbaai. A few years ago we were fortunate enough to build a house opposite the original family home. It is a special thing to have family who are also your neighbours and friends!

Throughout January 2021 we watched the fire burning in the mountain at night, but did not feel too alarmed – after all, it was on the other side of Betty’s – in the mountain and we felt safe and sheltered from it, so close to the ocean.

The morning of January the eleventh was a busy one, Martie Pienaar (Arnold’s aunt) and I had ladies who came to help clean our homes, and both our husbands were away. Arnold was back at work in Swaziland while I stayed on with our daughters, Livia and Amelia, and Frans, Marties’ husband went to the airport to fetch friends who came to visit.

After lunchtime, when the ladies had left, I noticed that the sky had a sickly yellow tinge, I also realized that the power was off, and I wanted to go across the road to ask if they have power and to have a cup of coffee. As we fought our way across the road against the wind, we saw how Marties’ wheelie bin went down the road in the wind. When we got inside, Martie said that she heard that people are evacuating in Jock’s Bay and that we should perhaps pack a suitcase. When I came back with our bag, she was talking to a man who said that we cannot evacuate by car as Clarence Drive was burning on both sides. To be safe, we dressed more warmly and got scarves to cover our faces. We also moved the girls’ most precious soft toys, documents, water, eye drops and Mentos sweets into a shopping bag in case we needed to go down to the beach. I wanted us to take Marties’ beloved cats with – but she refused. It was only later that I realized that she couldn’t help me with the girls and take care of the cats – she had to choose……

Once outside- the heat was unimaginable.  We couldn’t go down to the beach as the fire has now reached the open plot between our house and the beach.  So we decided to go down to the rocks at the Swanepoel (a rock pool).  We had to climb/jump over a fence and ran down to the rocks below. I remember two things from that trip down – I physically threw my 8 &10 year olds over the fence and then Martie pushed me over the fence and shouted that we must run, she’s coming.  And that we dropped the unicorn stuffed toy. I turned back to get it, and I am so grateful that I did. It would not have been there when we returned.

We sat at the Swanepoel and waited. At times it became difficult to breathe and the flying embers burned us while stones exploded nearby. The girls asked if we will die, and I honestly did not know what to answer. I said that we are safe for now, and together, and that whatever happened – we will be together. Martie prayed for our safety, and thanked God for being with us. We ate Mentos and sipped water- I was afraid that one of us may faint, or that I will and that I will not be able to help them. Throughout this Martie and the girls were so calm. (Martie remembers Sonet being very firm and just telling the girls she needed them to be brave!)

At some stage the smoke and heat became quite bad, and I sat on the rock, halfway into the water, and wondered if this could actually be our last moments.  We were also contemplating where we would go from here, as none of us can swim!

The rain came, the fire burned itself out against the rocks, and we made our way back home, after about 90 minutes on the rocks, without any visibility to see if our houses survived. We joked and said that the way back was much easier than the way down – all the bush have been burned away!

Our houses miraculously survived. 3 Houses within a few hundred meters burned down to the ground.  Marties’ house had damage and the front porch was on fire.  She put that out with the sand in the cat litter box.  Our fire wood pile was on fire and I put that out with all the 2-liter bottles of Coke zero we had in the fridge.  Our car, with a full tank of fuel, didn’t catch fire while a mop burned out right next to the front tyre.

We found the 15yr old cat, Rafiki, safe in the house without suffering from smoke inhalation; and Mufasa, who escaped, returned the next morning with no burns, just some scorched fur!

The next morning I felt compelled to go down to the rocks again, and I found a piece of paper fluttering in the wind, Psalm 139: 1-10:

1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.

2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.

5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

When I read it, it felt like a confirmation of our miraculous safekeeping: that the Lord knows me and my flaws- He knows all of me, yet loves all of me. At the far side of the sea where we took shelter, His hand did guide us and held us. Our homes and car were undamaged, even though the fire raged a meter away. We were safe, the girls were safe, and the cats were safe. And to me, all the rest fell away.  What really mattered, still stood.

Yes, 11 January 2021 was a day of trauma and destruction, but for our family it was also a day of miracles and hope:

A miracle that we were together and could keep each other brave and sane.

A miracle that we couldn’t evacuate, and waited at the rock pools- we were safe, and could return home immediately, where we put out small fires with Coke Zero and cat litter!

A miracle that our car, with a full tank didn’t catch fire while a mop burned next to it.

A miracle that we couldn’t take the cats with us, and they remained safe.

A miracle that we were 4 ladies who could be calm and laugh on our way back home- the trip back was a lot easier after the bushes burned away.

A miracle that we have brave little girls with no nightmares or fear afterwards.

A miracle that it burned right around our homes, but that they are still standing.

A miracle that we saved the unicorn! (Yes, God even cares for a little girl’s favourite toy!)

Hope given by a man who drove past the next day offering us water (Nico Muller).

Hope given by a kind aunt who offered us hot showers at her home (Santie Pienaar).

Hope given by a kind uncle who offered his generator to us to use free of charge (Willie Pienaar).

Hope given by kids exploring the burned surroundings with wonder.

Hope given by confirmation of God’s unconditional love.

Sonet Pouwels
Betty’s Bay
Western Cape
South Africa

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