Fire season begins

Cape Winelands District (CWD) Fire and Rescue Services conducted a demonstration of aerial resources and ground crews suppressing a wildfire, at a recent pre-season briefing in the Breede Valley.

The Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) inducted 46 of the 63 new recruits who qualified during the recent training season, at a unit-wide induction ceremony at The Shed on Annandale Road on Saturday November 3.

The VWS has four firebases in the Cape Peninsula – Newlands, Jonkershoek, South Peninsula and Grabouw – and annual inductions are usually held at the individual bases.

For the first time in its almost 20-year history – it was started in 1999 – fighting wildfires in the Western Cape, the VWS held a unit-wide induction ceremony to welcome this year’s new recruits into the “Family of Yellows”.

“Because we are called to fires in different parts of the Cape, we don’t get to see members from the other firebases, so holding a unit-wide induction, gives us an opportunity to foster unity in the VWS,” said Jonkershoek station manager, Alida Fanfoni. “We are also pleased that the first unit-wide induction was hosted in our area.”

She said that the annual event will be hosted by each station on a rotation basis in future.

“For our new recruits who have trained as firefighters, it is the culmination of months of hard work during training season, which includes a number of training scenarios and arduous hikes, training in fire fighting theory and practice, a basic wildfire suppression course, and successful completion of the international firefighters work capacity test,” said training manager, Ian Smit.

“All that effort is rewarded when each of them receives the tiny little badge that says ‘Firefighter’ which will be stitched onto the sleeve of their yellow shirts. They are now fully-fledged firefighters, and are ready to respond to fire calls.”

Aside from the new firefighters, new recruits in the fields of critical support, driving and planning were also inducted into the unit.

“Not everybody wants to train as a firefighter, and we do also need people to sign up for important non-firefighting roles, without which we cannot manage deployments, get our crews safely to and from the fireline, and feed and debrief them once they come off the line,” Ms Fanfoni said, adding that being a donor-funded organisation, the VWS also needs people skilled in marketing and fund-raising.

As VWS chairperson, Jon-Jon Emary pointed out in his introduction, “fire waits for no man”, and just prior to the event, a call came in from CapeNature, one of the VWS’s deployment partners, for a crew of firefighters to respond to a fire call in Du Toit’s Kloof, the first fire call of the 2018/2019 fire season, which started officially on November 1.

Shortly after the crew departed, a second fire call came in from CapeNature for a crew to deploy to the Southern Cape to assist with the many wildfires in the area. In an unexpected twist, the Du Toit’s Kloof crew stood down shortly after arriving at the fireline, and returned to base to prepare for the Southern Cape deployment.

The nine-strong crew departed from the VWS Jonkershoek temporary base at Delvera on the R44 outside Stellenbosch for the Southern Cape, at 6am on Sunday November 3, for one of the longest deployments in the history of the VWS – 84 hours, base-to-base.

Staging from the Working on Fire Base in Riversdale where the incident command post was situated, the crew faced fireline deployments of 17 hours, 21 hours and 14 hours, before returning to base on Wednesday November 7, at 6pm.

Switching back and forth between two major firelines, they engaged with Karoo veld, plantation and fynbos vegetation, executing mop-ups, monitoring the line, and engaging with active firelines where flame-height was over 10 metres at times. “That’s when you just stood back and watched it burn until the flame height dropped enough for us to re-engage,” firefighter Eugene Greyling told Bolander on Wednesday.

Crew leader Albert Falanga had only praise for his crew: “They worked their guts out in sometimes very difficult conditions. Spirits were high all the time, and the banter never ceased.”

On the 21-hour deployment, the crew cut a scratch line over a kilometre long, in a parallel attack on a raging plantation fire. “They just refused to give up,” said Mr Falanga.

The crew was full of praise for driver Henrietta Brock, who, when not in attendance close by, was off making arrangements for the firefighters to rest and recover when they came off the line.

The crew arrived back at base, tired and impossibly grubby, but ebullient after their marathon engagement with the fires that raged from the Outeniqua Mountains above George all the way east to Tsitsikama, burning over 100 000 ha of vegetation, destroying a number of structures, and tragically, taking nine lives, most of them children.

The Peninsula and Winelands fire services responded to the call for assistance from Southern Cape disaster management agencies, with Table Mountain National Park and CapeNature dispatching ground crews to assist.

Returning VWS crews are always treated to a hot meal, which gives them an opportunity to unwind after the stress of being on the fireline for hours, and for the important crew debriefing to take place, but the big surprise this time was the number of VWS members who turned out to welcome the crew home.

Firefighter John Kotze summarised the crew’s appreciation: “Thank you so much to my VWS family, the crew, the support crew, the members at home who were with us (in spirit) all the time, and the welcome home crew. You all rock.”

“We’re faced with a tough fire season,” Ms Fanfoni said.

Pre-season briefings have taken place across the Western Cape, and Bolander attended the Cape Winelands District (CWD) Municipality pre-season veld fire briefing at Slanghoek Mountain Resort two weeks ago.

The outlook for the next six months, provided by SA Weather Service meteorologist Henning Grobler, is underpinned by a high level of predictive model uncertainty. Good rains in June, July and August were followed by a steep drop-off toward October, and the outlook until March is for warm, dry weather with only five to 10mm of rain likely. An El Nino effect of heating over the Atlantic, will, however, result in less wind.

In her keynote address at the briefing, CWD executive mayor, Dr Helena von Schlicht, said: “We live in changing times, and climate change means that it is getting hotter and dryer, but I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, because people are beginning to see their role (in climate change). Sadly, the poorest of the poor are the people most affected by the fires in George and Knysna.”

Turning to the coming fire season, Dr Von Schlicht thanked all the stakeholders that work with CWD fire services each fire season: “I want to thank all our partners, because with your support, we are able to achieve our safety goals.

“We have budgeted R56 million for this fire season, but if we need more money, we’ll fetch it from somewhere,” she said.

Of that sum R630 000 is set aside to assist landowners with the cutting of firebreaks.

“Firefighting is nothing without people, and I want to express my deepest appreciation to all the people in the fire services, from the bottom to the top, for what you all do. You are disciplined people, highly specialised, committed, and you do whatever is asked of you. You are selfless, going willingly into danger where life may be at stake. Look after yourselves and take care during this fire season.”

Dr Von Schilcht later observed a demonstration of firefighting readiness using aerial and ground resources, after which she personally thanked and wished well every member of the CWD fire services, including all seasonal and contract crews.

BLOB) Norman McFarlane is a volunteer firefighter with the Volunteer Wildfire Services.