Fires still rage across Table Mountain after alleged arson attack

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Firefighting teams, aided by a helicopter dropping water, were still working yesterday to put out a blaze which swept across the face of Table Mountain more than 48 hours earlier, disfiguring one of South Africa's most famous landmarks.

Above the centre of Cape Town, the blackened slopes of the flat-topped mountain and neighbouring Signal Hill were still smouldering. Although the high winds which fanned the blaze had eased, fire authorities warned that there were still numerous "hot spots" which could flare up again, with hot weather and strong winds predicted until Wednesday. Several new outbreaks were extinguished by water-bombing from the air.

A 65-year-old British woman died while hiking with her daughter on Signal Hill on Thursday, apparently from smoke inhalation. They have not been named. A British tourist, Anthony Cooper, from Swansea, appeared in court on Friday on charges of culpable homicide and arson. A Table Mountain National Park guide saw the fire begin near his car, parked on the road leading to the lower station of the Table Mountain cableway. Cooper is alleged to have started the fire by throwing a cigarette butt out of a car, causing the tinder-dry vegetation to erupt in flames. Mr Cooper's passport was seized and he was bailed to appear again on 10 February.

Since the end of apartheid Cape Town has become an international tourist destination, with celebrities and aristocrats such as Elton John, Lord Spencer and Graham Norton buying properties there. The wildfire took place at the height of the tourist season, and officials said many more foreign holidaymakers might have died but for the combination of extreme hot weather and strong winds, which caused the Table Mountain cableway to open late and deterred some visitors from going out.

Although the fire swept across mountain tops to threaten some of Cape Town's smartest areas, from Sea Point on the Atlantic coast to Newlands, no houses were destroyed. The Cape Peninsula is a unique ecosystem which has World Heritage status, and conservationists fear that the fire wiped out several species of plant and insect life. According to one estimate, up to half of the world's Cape Silver trees, a delicate and slow-growing species, might have burned.

Apart from runaway fires, the Cape Floral Kingdom, or fynbos, is also under serious threat from alien plant infestations and global warming. Some believe climate change has made the Cape's mountain fires worse, making the vegetation drier and the winds stronger.