A night on the mountain

Volunteer Wildfire Services firefighter, Quean Dreyer, takes a breather during the arduous hike up the fireline, above the Wemmershoek dam.

We’ve been watching the Du Toitkskloof fire status updates hungrily for days, itching for a callout so that we could do our bit to help contain the damage.

When the callout finally pops up on our WhatsApp group, in the late afternoon: “JNK (CapeNature) CALLOUT Du Toitskloof 28/02/2020 08:00. Be at JNK Base 16:00 on 29/02/2020. Reply by SMS Yes + name”, a flurry of fingers hastily tap out acceptance messages, among them, “Norman McF Yes”, hoping to get on crew.

Considering the magnitude of the fire that had raged for days, the crew is pretty sure of having to battle active flame. Or so we believe.

Meeting at Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) temporary Jonkershoek firebase at Delvera on the R44 outside Stellenbosch just before 4pm, we are in the Landy (Land Rover) and on our way to the incident command post (ICP) in under a half hour, kit check completed, radios, GPS, First Aid kit, weather meter, assigned, and handtool bag packed and strapped securely to the roof carrier.

The wind which had played such a major role in the fire’s spread, has subsided a great deal, so the smoke hangs thickly in the air, obscuring the mountains as we approach along the N1 motorway.

Our briefing at ICP – behind the N1 toll plaza – confirms we are in for a rough night: hot, dry conditions; steep, difficult terrain; old, dense largely proteoid vegetation.

We meet up with two crews from our Newlands and South Peninsula firebases, and head for the Wemmershoek dam wall, to engage with our Div Sup (divisional superintendent), Dean Ferreira. And that’s where we discover that radio comms and cellphone comms where we are to deploy – a fireline east of the dam – are appalling. If we need to communicate with ICP, or for that matter, with Div Sup Dean, we have to send a driver back to the dam wall to establish comms. Messy, but there you are.

The joy of a Landy is that you can usually drive closer to the fireline than in a non-off-road vehicle, but the dirt roads are in surprisingly good condition, so the Ford Transit transporting one of the other crews, had no difficulty getting to our staging point.

We drive through a landscape that had only very recently been almost completely denuded of vegetation as fire raged through the fynbos. The fire must have been intense, because aside from the really old proteoids – 18 to 20 years old – everything has been reduced to ash.

Here and there, a large, old fallen tree trunk still smoulders, and as we drive, we encounter resources from the fire services that have rallied to assist with suppression operations – Cape Winelands Fire Services, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue and CapeNature – keeping a weather eye on the fireline, looking for flareups.

As we approach, we see a Working on Fire Huey (Bell UH-1 Iroquois) in the distance returning to the dam to fill its 1 000-litre Bambi bucket, before swooping back up to drop it on the fireline where the fire still rages high up in the mountains.

By the time we arrive at the staging point, where the by now suppressed fireline intersects the road, the Huey has been stood down.

The stark contrast between burned and unburned vegetation, and the fact that aside from the active flame high up in the mountains, the fire is out, brings it home with a thump: we are faced with a night of the more unglamorous aspect of wildland firefighting – mopping up and observation.

Water bombing a fireline, is the most effective means of extinguishing a vegetation fire, but, as Leading Edge Aviation owner and chopper pilot, Mark Jackson, says: “Putting out the fire is easy for the chopper, but making sure it stays out and doesn’t stand up again is something only a hand crew can do.”

And mopping up and observation is what we end up doing most of the time. It’s grunt work to be sure, but it is vital work too, because if a line that was extinguished stands up and runs, all the many thousands of rand spent on aerial suppression is wasted, so we go to it with a will.

One crew will work the line from the road, the other two crews will work the line up to the cliff face, far above the road.

The hike up the fireline is serpentine and halting as we follow the edge of the black, looking for smouldering embers, dragging them well into the black, and spreading them if need be, so they can burn out without risk of reigniting the blaze.

The incline is brutal, but eventually we arrive at our chosen bivouac where we will spend the night, safely well inside the black. (Bivvying “in the green” is suicidal for a couple of reasons: it’s full of creepy crawlies that have recently fled the fire, and if the fire stands up and runs again, you’ll become the fuel.)

We take it in turns to watch the fireline, and more importantly, the fire high in the cliffs above us, as it inches slowly down towards the unburned vegetation a few hundred metres away. If it gets there, the fire will stand up again and run, and we’ll have to engage.

As the sun sets, the myriad red pinpoints in the ravaged landscape below show where embers still smoulder, and way off in the distance, in impossibly inaccessible terrain a fireline rages, consuming everything in its path.

But it’s burning away from us, so we’re safe.

Off to the north, we see another fireline, and we silently wish well our fellow firefighters on that line, battling to suppress it and keep it away from agricultural land and structures.

Anticipating a cold night, we gather a stack of firewood, and by the simple expedient of finding a smouldering ember and a hank of dried grass in the green, we build a cheerful fire in the lee of a rocky outcrop – well within the black – around which we cluster for warmth, sweat-sodden shirts hung on the rocks to dry, as we swop stories of other fires, other bivvies, absent friends.

We take it in shifts to grab some restive shut-eye, with the lookouts ever watchful of the fire still burning in the crags overhead, and as the rising sun seeps light over the peaks to the east, we bestir ourselves, ironing out the kinks of a night spent dozing on hard, cold ground, and prepare to hike off the mountain once we are stood down.

Div Sup Dean confirms that we are stood down, and we commence the hike out. Heartbreakingly, the fire that has edged down the mountain through the night, stands up just below the cliffs in dense, old proteoid vegetation, in steep, hazardous terrain.

Strike team leader, Paul Lutz, who has kept a close eye on the slowly descending fire from below, makes the call: the fire is a good deal further away than we can gauge from our vantage point, and a fresh Working on Fire crew is hiking up the mountain to relieve us anyway.

It is time to withdraw, so we turn our backs on the beckoning fireline, and make our way disconsolately down the mountain, load up the vehicles, and head back to base, for debriefing and a hot meal, then home, a shower, and some well-earned rest.

Maybe next time, we’ll have some active flame.

Norman McFarlane is a volunteer wildland firefighter with Volunteer Wildfire Services.