Runaway veld fire claims the lives of six SANDF soldiers

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A runaway veld fire that swept through the South African Army’s Combat Training Centre (CTC) at Lohatla claimed the lives of six soldiers, and injured several others, on Friday afternoon.

Department of Defence spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said a fire from a nearby mine rolled into the western part of the CTC in the Northern Cape on the afternoon of 6 October, driven by strong winds that reached up to 70 km/h.

The South African Army reported that six soldiers lost their lives during the incident, and
three were injured with second degree burns and were evacuated to the nearest hospital. The names of the deceased soldiers will be released once the next of kin have been informed.

The Department of Cooperative Governance, Human Settlements and and Traditional Affairs said the fire spread from Kathu in the Gamagara local municipality to Lohatla. Department spokesperson Tshenolo Meruti said the Northern Cape has called for national intervention. “Our disaster unit has escalated the matter to the head of the National Disaster Management Centre for their intervention. The South African National Defence Force activated their own choppers to extinguish the fire. The Fire Protection Association will work closely with them.”

The incident happened during preparations of the forthcoming SA Army Exercise Vuk’uhlome, which will culminate in November.

Dlamini said the Chief of the South African Army is on site to personally take charge of the situation and more information will be determined as the investigation continues into the cause of fire from the nearby mine.

South African National Defence Union (SANDU) National Secretary Pikkie Greeff expressed the organisation’s heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased.

“Yet another tragedy has now claimed the lives of South African soldiers bringing to total 12 soldiers lost in the past three weeks,” SANDU noted, after three submariners died on 20 September when they were washed overboard the SAS Manthatisi, and four soldiers died in a Samil truck accident while en route to Lohatla that same day.

SANDU said a Board of Inquiry (BOI) will be convened by the SANDF to determine among other things the circumstances leading to the loss of personnel and equipment as well as the value of the equipment losses (which by social media footage seem substantial).

Veld fires are common at this time of year – the SA weather service reported multiple fires in the Northern Cape this week amidst a heatwave. This is not the first time a veld fire has caused damage at Lohatla, with for example at least one similar incident in the 1980s causing the loss of several vehicles.

The same fire that swept through Lohatla is also believed to have destroyed at least five houses and burnt an area of 400 000 hectares, claiming grazing land and livestock.

Major General Rene Mercuur said on behalf of SA Army Headquarters that the Army is currently assessing the situation on the ground and further information regarding this incident will be communicated in due course as the investigation is still under way.

The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thandi Modise, Deputy Minister of Defence
and Military Veterans, Thabang Makwetla, Acting Secretary for Defence, Dr Thobile Gamede, Chief of the South African National Defence Force, General Rudzani Maphwanya and Chief of the South African Army, Lieutenant General Lawrence Khulekani Mbatha,  extend their deepest condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the six SA Army members who tragically lost their lives in the line of duty, the SA Army said.