Woodridge College and Preparatory School: the fire of 10 June 2017 – reflections and the lessons learnt

| September 4, 2017 | 0 Comments


Woodridge College and Preparatory School in the Eastern Cape is well known for being the perfect natural setting for an educational experience that goes far beyond the classroom.

On Saturday 10 June 2017, fanned by strong winds, a fire led to the destruction of academic buildings, staff homes and a hostel on the 365-acre property. Despite significant damage, the school is currently fully operational, with temporary classrooms in place and motivated staff working faithfully to ensure that the school continues with a rigorous academic programme, alongside an extensive sporting, cultural and outdoor education curriculum.

On the day of the fire, Woodridge College was due to participate in a rugby fixture against Despatch High School. This fixture never took place as, after receiving a call from a dairy farmer across the Van Staden’s Gorge1 that the fire was headed in our direction, the evacuation alarm was sounded early in the morning and all the pupils on site were loaded into vehicles in an orderly manner. Within 30 minutes, everyone – including staff, pupils and workers – was transported from the school to a central place of safety. Whole school alert and prepared, but the fire too fierce During the week prior to the fire, we had practised a fire evacuation drill with all the boarders. As a consequence, there was no panic on the day we were faced with this challenging situation. The most important outcomes of this disaster were that no one was injured, and that all the horses in our equestrian centre were safely relocated.

The decision was made that no one would return to campus until further notice. Although the fires in the surrounding area were under control, gale-force winds were predicted and we did not feel that the campus was safe. Boarders were billeted with Woodridge dayscholar and staff families. The emergency firefighting units and Thornhill farmers and friends2 were on the campus to assist with the control of fires. However, once the wind picked up, there was nothing that could be done to stop the ferocity of the fire, which swept through the campus. In hindsight, we have asked ourselves what could have been done to avert this calamity. Berg wind conditions, along with high temperatures, strong winds, tinder-dry vegetation and a massive drought,3 resulted in the catastrophe that played itself out on that day, and we were powerless against the forces of nature.

Please put plans in place

There are certainly lessons to be learnt from this disaster. It is critical that the school has an emergency response plan for a number of different scenarios, which could include the threat of a fire, car or bus accidents involving pupils and or staff, accidents on tours or outdoor education trips, and possible assault by outsiders entering the school property.

As unlikely as the occurrence of such incidents may be, it is definitely worth evaluating what could happen, and what needs to be in place to best cope with the situation. Effective communication is paramount, and parents and pupils should be able to access one common platform to ensure that the message sent out by management (or whoever has been allocated the portfolio of disseminating information) is received.

Woodridge relied on d6 School Communicator as well as a blanket SMS system. Often, schools do not take evacuation drills as seriously as they should. We were extremely fortunate that we perceived the possibility of a fire and, hence, conducted a drill a few days prior to the disaster. This reminded us of the importance of having an emergency response plan in place, and that designated tasks should be allocated to specific people so that duplication does not occur unnecessarily. In this way, individuals can focus on conversations A warm “Welcome back!” hug was received by each Woodridge College and Preparatory School students after the recent fire Independent Education • Spring 17 31 exactly what has been assigned to them and, as a consequence, outcomes are achieved more efficiently and timeously. The list of people who have been allocated the work needs to be communicated to all stakeholders, so there is no misunderstanding as to where or to whom queries or work should be directed. Such events, unfortunately, can be very traumatic, and professional help in the form of psychologists must be made available to provide trauma counselling.

This may be required for some time after the event. In our instance, a number of staff lost everything they owned. Their on-campus houses were completely gutted, and most of these staff members were not able to take anything with them when they were evacuated. Many of their own children were traumatised by the tragic events on that day.

A caring community

Woodridge was humbled by the community spirit that was prevalent after the disaster. Donations in the form of clothing, bedding, food, water and money came pouring in from all over the country. There was so much that we were able to pass on some of these donations to other needy citizens. We would like to say to other schools, though: beware those people who look for opportunities to make money out of such disasters. We were contacted by a number of people who promised to provide support in construction, teaching materials, temporary classrooms and a variety of other areas. On investigation, it was obvious that these people were looking to make money out of the situation.

Over the next few months, and perhaps years, we will analyse what happened and do our best to ensure that such a disaster never happens again at the school. On reflection, we have already identified that we need to create a much greater physical buffer to possible fire damage, by way of increasing the size of the fire breaks. We have, in fact, already created an open space around the entire campus to prevent any further immediate damage. We will bring in ecologists and horticulturists to restore and improve our environs.

Standing tall together

We made a commitment to our parents and pupils that, as a school, we would recommence on 4 July 2017. We needed to organise temporary classrooms, a dining hall, a kitchen and a host of other structures prior to this date to ensure that we were able to deliver on our obligation. We managed to have everything in place by the due date, and this feat was achieved through the incredible belief and hard work of our staff and the goodwill of so many people outside of our immediate community. Many schools, both independent and state, made contributions, and we are extremely grateful for this. The most important lesson we learnt as a school is that in times of tragedy, many, many good people step forward to offer assistance. As destructive as fire can be, it can give life to an unbreakable community spirit. This spirit is the driving force that secures an exceptional educational legacy for future

Woodridgeans.Trevor von Berg is the Woodridge Preparatory principal and Derek Bradley is the Woodridge College principal.


1. See, for example: http://myportelizabeth.co.za/the-van-stadens-gorge-featuredblog/ 33106
2. See, for example: https://www.sa-venues.com/attractionsec/thornhill.php
3. See, for example: http://www.heraldlive.co.za/news/2017/05/29/cabinetnotes- dire-drought-eastern-western-cape/ Mighty Oakhill will rise again Longstanding ISASA


Category: Spring 2017

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