The students ran along the main road as flames – fanned by strong winds – consumed the university’s historic library with its collection of rare books, and other campus buildings on Sunday.
Cape Town’s mayor Dan Plato said at least one firefighter was being treated for burns in hospital.
The fire started early on Sunday near a memorial to politician Cecil Rhodes, located on Devils Peak, another part of Cape Town’s mountainous backdrop, before spreading rapidly up the slopes.
Heavy smoke could be seen from kilometres away, some roads were closed and fire alerts were sent to all mountain hikers.
“All UCT students have been evacuated from campus by emergency services support staff,” the university said in a statement.
The university, ranked among the best in Africa, is largely built on the slopes of Devil’s Peak and is close to where the fire started. Ujala Satgoor, the executive director of UCT Libraries, said on Facebook that the Reading Room of the library had been gutted but that fire shutters had been triggered preventing the flames from spreading to other parts of the building.
“Some of our valuable collections have been lost,” Satgoor said, adding that the library would only be able to assess the full extent of the damage after the building had been declared safe.
“This is indeed a sad day for UCT and UCT Libraries! Although this loss will be felt deeply, we will weather this storm and rise from the ashes.”
Private homes and historical structures such as the Mostert’s Hill windmill had also been damaged in the fire, city authorities said.
Three helicopters were deployed to battle the inferno with video and photo shared on social media showing students milling around on the main road, amid billowing smoke and the night sky illuminated in orange flames. Aljazeera