There is no dignified way to come off a mountain in the dark, with a howling gale gusting up to 60km/h, on a perilously steep descent with uncertain footing, fighting your way through chest-high fynbos.
Your mode of perambulation is like an 18-month-old late-walking baby, who stands up for the first time, and lurches from place to place, on the very edge of balance, yet miraculously remains upright.
But it is when you are at your most vulnerable, that the rigorous training kicks in, and the ten standing fire orders and eighteen watch-outs – circumstances which arise that pose risks to a firefighter – come sharply into focus.
You realise why your trainers spent so much time encouraging you to not learn them parrot-fashion, but to at all times assess the situation in which you find yourself through the lens of those fire orders and watch-outs.
So, despite the fatigue, you focus ferociously on your footing, as you power down the slope.
It is Wednesday morning, about 1am, and the Jonkershoek Base Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) 14-strong crew has made its way down the old wagon track from the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass and the fire-line high above.
We strike the railway line, and turn west, warm now after the exertion of coming down the precipitous slope, having spent the last few hours hunkered down in the black in the lee of a rocky outcrop, watching like hawks whenever a gust of wind rips through the dirty black and whirls embers into the air towards patches of unburned fuel, in case a flare-up happens, which must be swiftly contained before the fire can spread afresh.
As time passes, the sweat you generated on the climb up to the fire-line, rapidly cools and the wind-chilled cold bites. “By god it’s cold!” I shout. “Well it’s either this, or its a daytime deployment and its blazing hot and the flames are massive and you fight your heart out to contain the fire. Sometimes you succeed, other times you don’t, and then you walk off the line when your operational period ends, and you watch the fire running away again,” explains Crew Leader (CL) Wayne van den Heuvel. “It’s pretty much between those two extremes.”
The deployment commenced when my phone signalled an incoming message from VWS Jonkershoek Base the day before, calling for a volunteer crew to engage the fire that had raged along the mountainside above Sir Lowry’s Pass, down to the urban edge area east of Gordon’s Bay Road: “JNK CALLOUT 17.15 Gordon’s Bay 07/11 Crew needed. Be at base by 17:45. Reply Yes/No and Name to HAYLEY ONLY RESPOND IN ROLE YOU HAVE QUALIFIED FOR.”
I immediately responded via SMS: “Yes Norman M FF” (firefighter), and thus commenced the first deployment as freshly qualified volunteer firefighters with VWS, for daughter Alex and me. A short while later, the crew list was posted on the * =operational WhatsApp group, and the 18-strong contingent, which included our Incident Command structure and critical support personnel, hastened to Jonkershoek Base to pack the vehicles with firefighting equipment, distribute radios, and go through the mandatory snd stringent pre-deployment checks.
Our assistant crew leader (ACL), Chris Hay, conducted the kit check: “Okay everybody show, it to me: flash-hood, goggles, gloves, helmet, head-torch, spare batteries, at least four litres of water, food for at least 12 hours, space blanket, warm clothing, basic first aid kit.” And as he calls out the item, each crew member holds up or shows him what is called for. “If you need to take any medication while on the line, do you have it with you? Has anybody been sick in the last two weeks? Have you completely recovered, and are you capable of being on the fire-line?”
This isn’t a case of going through the motions. It is deadly serious, because being on the fire-line, tackling “The Beast” as it is known, is a deadly serious business, with margins of error which are razor-thin.
And this assessment of capability and physical capacity is regularly revisited throughout the deployment, because although our injunction is to fight fires aggressively, we know we must always provide for safety first.
After fighting our way through the traffic on the N2 – it’s amazing how reluctantly some people respond to the siren and flashing lights of an emergency services vehicle making its way to an incident – our Agency Representative (AR), Carel Kriel, engages with our deployment agency, Cape Nature, and receives our deployment instructions.
As we drive up Sir Lowry’s Pass to our deployment point, darkness is falling, and CL Wayne says: “Heads-up people, we’re going to be fighting a fire in country we have not seen in daylight, so be aware at all times, look up, look down, look around. If you see anything untoward, make it known immediately.”
As we start the ascent up the mountain to the fire-line high above, the weather reality bites. A freezing wind, gusting up to 60km an hour, means that the fire’s rate of spread will be extreme. Thankfully, the wind is driving south along the mountainside, blowing the fire away from us, and no wind shift is anticipated during our operational period, but with the weather, you can never take anything for granted, so you must always be aware of any possible change in weather and respond accordingly.
Wind-driven ash is a potential hazard, and you become grateful for your flash-hood and goggles which protect you, and your gloves pulled up over your shirt cuffs and your flame-retardant trousers snugged around your fire-boots, mean you are as protected from the flames as you can be.
The Working on Fire (WOF) crew we are relieving appears out of the darkness, and we exchange banter, while our respective CLs talk about the state of the fire far above. The WOF crew has anchored its control line off the wagon track near the base of the fire, and fought diligently up the left flank of the fire-line.
We branch off the wagon track into the black – the previously burned area – and head up towards the glimmering fire-line, and suddenly the fire-line is right there in front of us, a swath of glowing embers, with just a few patches of flame that need to be beaten down. The WOF crew has done well: the fire is all but out. All we must do, is monitor the remnants of the fire and mop up until it is dead black and cold.
As time passes and the wind-driven cold bites deeper, the constant banter and swift repartee among the crew keeps spirits high. Off to the south, the fire is still raging above Gordon’s Bay and and flashing red lights near the soaring flames tell of the City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service’s motor pumps and fire tenders that are on the line, protecting structure and human life. At one point, 30 vehicles and 400 firefighters were deployed, to battle the massive fire. Elsewhere on the mountain, a VWS Newlands Base crew is battling the flames as well, and we wonder how they are faring.
CL Wayne’s regular radio communication with AR Carel keeps us all informed of the situation, and when midnight arrives, the fire’s status is such that we can descend the mountain and regroup at the Sir Lowry’s Pass view site, from where we must monitor our fire-line until 2am.
But at least we’re in our vehicles, and although we’re bone-weary, we are safe and warm for the moment. The fire-line above shows no sign of flare-ups, and eventually 2am arrives, and our deployment agency, Cape Nature, stands us down. “Okay people. We’re stood down,” says AR Carel. “Head back to base.” And our driver, Nico Loubser, starts the Transit and heads back to Jonkershoek Base, where a hot meal awaits us and the thorough crew debriefing session that follows every deployment, after which we head home for a shower and what sleep we can snatch, before commencing the work day.
Counting the cost when the fire is eventually brought under control, four homes in Gordon’s Bay have burned, including, terribly, the family home of one of our members. Mary-Ann’s Emporium and Eatery on Gordon’s Bay Road, also succumbed to the flames, and although the Helderberg Animal Welfare Society evacuated all of its animals, the structure survived unscathed.
It is easy to say that we got off lightly, but the reality is that a single life lost, a single structure burned, is always one too many.
And fire season has just commenced.