A baptism of fire

Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) firefighter, Rosca de Waal, takes a breather near the fireline, on the mountainside above Caledon last Wednesday night. VWS deployed two crews to assist Overberg District Municipality Fire and Rescue Services in suppressing the blaze that threatened parts of the town. PICTURE: NORMAN MCFARLANE

The fire-line inflicts a Faustian-red scar up the side of the mountain above Myddleton, and incredibly, the brightest, almost blood-red glow, issues from the stand of bushes right behind the municipal building which houses the Incident Command (IC) of Overberg District Municipality (ODM) Fire and Rescue Services which is struggling to contain the blaze.

It is dusk, which accentuates the lurid glow of the fire-line, and two Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) crews – one each from Jonkershoek and Newlands firebases – are donning their kit while the incident commander briefs crew leaders (CLs).

It is 8.30pm by the time our CL, Paul Lutz, emerges and briefs us.

“We’re assigned to Division Alpha (the left flank of the fire),” he says, “and we have to prevent the fire from getting to the Caledon Hospital.”

We bid farewell to our Newlands comrades – assigned to Division Charlie (the right flank of the fire) – and our objective slides into view as we walk around the building.

CL Paul explains that we will initially help to contain the fire on the lower slopes of the mountain, before hiking up through the pine forest to intersect the fire-line higher up, establish an anchor point, and commence a parallel attack.

Thankfully, we’re offered a ride up to a point close to our first destination, where we don our full personal protective equipment (PPE) – flash-hood, fire-resistant gloves, goggles and helmet.

After a short hike-in, we meet up with the ODM motor-pump and crew, and CL Paul confirms our destination – the head of the fire, a short distance up-slope.

The going is heavy. We are in a poorly-maintained pine and black wattle plantation, and although the trees are young and slender, they grow close together and it is difficult to push through the thin but wiry lower branches.

The bright glow ahead leads us to our destination, and suddenly, we are face-to-face with The Beast.

We commence our assault on the right flank some distance down from the head of the fire – attempting a direct frontal assault on the head of a fire contravenes one of the 18 standard watch-outs of wildland firefighting.

The plan is to create an anchor point and progressively work our way up the fire-line, suppressing as we go, while the ODM hose crew works its way up the left flank of the fire: the classic pincer attack which should result in the two crews meeting up and containing the fire.

This is my first hot fire – the previous three were mop-up and monitoring operations – and despite having worked a controlled burn during training season, I quickly realise that nothing can fully prepare you for the reality of an un-contained fire.

Thankfully, there is little or no wind, but the fire still burns with indescribable heat. Your PPE allows you to attack the fire with a beater, provided the flame height is not extreme – below two metres – but the fuel on this fire means it burns far hotter than fynbos.

The untrimmed lower branches are clogged with pine-needles – classic ladder fuels which can “lead” a fire up into the canopy, resulting in a dreaded crown-fire – and the sudden flare-ups as the fire advances, drive you back from the punishing heat.

You leak water from every pore, and despite the intense heat, your clothing is soon drenched with sweat.

The little voice in your head, yells “Hydrate! Hydrate!” and you turn your back on the fire, lower the front of your flash-hood and drink deeply from your water bladder, spitting out the first hot mouthful.

But there is little time for respite, so you raise your flash-hood ensuring there is no exposed skin, and you return to the fray.

Our progress is desperately slow, so CL Paul sends two of us back to the ODM motor-pump with a request: can we run an additional hose-line across to our assault point and get some water on the fire?

Alas, this is not possible, but the compromise is to extend the existing hose-lay with two additional lengths, which will allow the crew on the hose, to suppress up and around to where we are working the fire.

In short order, we help the ODM crew run out the additional hose lengths, and we depart for the fire-line higher up the mountain, which we intersect at about 11.30pm.

We establish an anchor point and under CL Paul’s direction, commence a parallel attack on the fire.

This entails cutting a control-line at least two metres wide, and a comfortable distance from the fire, which is cleared down to mineral earth.

The fire can then burn itself out against that control-line, and in that division at least, the fire will be contained. Unless, of course, the wind picks up and shifts, which although the forecast says won’t happen until Thursday morning, is by no means a certainty.

The idea is to keep the control-line as straight as possible, so we set to with a will, cutting and knocking down ladder fuels from larger trees and sawing down smaller trees and tossing them into the unburned “green”, and with rake-hoes, clearing the line down to mineral earth.

It is arduous work, and despite high levels of physical fitness, crew members need brief rest spells, effected by a rota system CL Paul sets up.

There is something surreal about seeing a fellow firefighter hunkered down a safe distance from the fire-line on a break, calmly munching a sandwich, while the fire burns brightly behind.

As we progress up the mountain, the constant refrain to keep a lookout causes you to be acutely aware of fire behaviour, and to report to CL Paul anything untoward. It is the only way to remain safe in an essentially unsafe environment.

Regular patrols down the line, mean that any slop-overs – spots where the fire has crossed back over the control-line into unburned fuel – are rapidly suppressed.

A glance behind every now and again reminds us of our task – the lights of the Caledon Hospital which we must protect, and the town beyond it, glow through the trees.

We emerge into a stand of pine trees 20 plus years and older, more widely spaced, but more dangerous because of snags – trees falling after burning through at the base – so vigilance is essential.

We know, from radio communication between CL Paul and IC, that another crew is working its way up toward the ridge above from the other side of the mountain, and it is our intention to meet up with them if we can.

We put in a Herculean effort to cut the control-line to a rocky outcrop almost on the crest of the ridge, visible in the light of the fire, and stop short perhaps 200 or 300 metres of it, when CL Paul stands us down at 4am.

Our operational period is over, and we make our way down the mountain to IC, where our driver, Carlo Hill, has patiently waited for us, maintaining communication with both VWS crews, and relaying to IC when needed. As we trudge back down the line we have cut in the last five or so hours, CL Paul remarks laconically: “This is a textbook control-line, people. We’ve done good.”

And this is affirmed when IC sees the GPS track of our endeavours. And our line held right through the next day, until two new VWS crews arrived to continue with mopping up operations.

As dawn lightens the sky, we take our leave of the incident commander, and head for
base, where a hot meal awaits us, before driving home, taking a shower and doing our Thursday day-jobs.

By Sunday night, over a five day period, VWS had dispatched 12 crews to fight wildfires: four to Caledon, three to Kommetjie/Slangkop, one to Albertinia, two to Tokai, and two to Villiersdorp.