South African emergency workers have started evacuating three 17-storey residential buildings overlooking Cape Town city as a wildfire fanned by strong winds continues to burn out of control along Table Mountain, city officials say.

The fire started early Sunday morning on the slopes of Devils’ Peak, another part of Cape Town’s mountainous backdrop, forcing University of Cape Town students to evacuate residences as runaway flames set several campus buildings ablaze, including a library housing historic books and scripts.

Around 250 firefighters are battling to control the blaze, as strong winds ground helicopters normally used in firebombing sorties. A thick plume of smoke is obscuring visibility throughout the city centre.

Other properties damaged includes the popular hikers’ restaurant at Rhodes memorial and the thatch-roofed Mostert Mill, built around 1796 and South Africa’s oldest working mill.

City officials confirmed one suspect was detained last night on Devil’s Peak amid speculation that additional fires may have been started and whether the original fire was deliberately lit in an act of arson.

Two firefighters sustained burn wounds and were hospitalised for treatment, officials said, as a change in wind direction saw the fire spread rapidly towards the city bowl overnight.

“Disaster risk management staff and volunteers have started evacuating Disa Park in Vredehoek,” city officials said. The identical Disa Park residential buildings sit close to the foot of the mountain and overlook the central business district.

All schools in the Vredehoek area have been asked to evacuate, a disaster management spokeswoman said, adding that homes used to accommodate travelling cabinet ministers in Walmer Estate were also being cleared.