New recruits join the yellow family

Fifteen new recruits endure the traditional drenching which follows their induction as active members into the Volunteer Wildfire Services.

Fifteen new recruits realised the fruits of their hard work and dedication during a gruelling training season, when they were inducted into the “yellow family” of the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), on Saturday November 16, at the VWS Jonkershoek (JNK)and Grabouw (GBW) firebase’s annual induction ceremony at Delvera wine estate in Stellenbosch.

The event marks the conclusion of much hard work by the station training team, which guided the new recruits through a series of training scenarios, hikes, lectures, skills evaluations and the international firefighters work capacity test, as well as the basic wildfire suppression course (BWS), which prepare the new recruits for assuming their duties during fire season.

Active VWS members must also undergo the same training and evaluations every training season – except the BWS – to ensure they are prepared and fit for the fireline.

“It’s been a tough training season, and on many occasions, we were training in pouring rain and freezing cold, but all our new recruits and active members toughed it out, and are now equipped to respond to callouts,” said training manager, Henrietta Brock.

“Juggling training commitments with work or study schedules isn’t easy, but this dedication shows that the people who make it through and qualify, have the commitment and mindset to be wildland firefighters,” said station manager, Ian Harrison. “It is always a proud moment when our new recruits step up in their bright new PPE (personal protective equipment) and receive their badges, the symbolic gesture of acknowledging they have qualified in their chosen role, be it firefighter, driver, or critical support.”

Mr Harrison paid a special tribute to Ms Brock for her stewardship and management of the training season: “I think I speak for everybody here, when I say that Henrietta has done a fantastic job this training season.

“She has been tireless in her pursuit of excellence on the part of new recruits and active members alike, and she organised a number of innovative and challenging training activities which have brought out the best in everybody who participated.”

Aside from the new recruits, two new crew leaders were also inducted, receiving their distinctive red helmets. Stellenbosch-based Marc Kerr, is a six-year veteran with the VWS, and in his day job, he works for Specialized Bicycle Company. Somerset West resident, Daan Brink, has been with the VWS for four years, and he works for Fruitmax Agri in Grabouw.

The road to crew leader status is long and arduous. Aside from accumulating the requisite number of active fireline hours (minimum 150), aspirant crew leaders must complete a formal training course, as well as a Level 3 First Aid qualification.

But it doesn’t end there. A further minimum 50 active fireline hours in an assistant crew leader capacity is followed by one more – and possibly the toughest – hurdle: a peer review process by existing experienced crew leaders, who must determine if the aspirant is competent and worthy of becoming a crew leader.

“Leading a crew is a major responsibility, because the lives of up to eight other people are in your hands. Just having the hours and the training is no guarantee that you’ll get that red helmet,” said Mr Harrison.

The induction ceremony was preceded by a fire season briefing by CapeNature integrated catchment specialist, Dian Dreyer. He pointed out that, according to the SA National Weather Service (SANWS): “The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is currently in a neutral state and the forecast indicates that it will most likely remain in a neutral state for the coming seasons,” adding that, “ENSO forecast are currently extremely uncertain with a wide variety of outcomes predicted by different forecasting centres.”

However, quoting from the National Agro-meteorological Committee advisory on the 2019/20 summer season: statement from Climate Change and Disaster Management published on November 6, he said: “There is a likelihood of below normal rainfall increasing towards mid to late summer. Temperatures are expected to be above normal.”

Mr Dreyer also spoke about veld age and fire frequency in the areas which fall under the jurisdiction of CapeNature.

He pointed out that although fynbos is a fire-adapted vegetation type that requires regular burning if it is to perpetuate, the burn-cycle, or frequency of burns, is critical to its survival.

“There are some species, like renosterveld, which have a shorter burn cycle, and others, like some of the proteoids, which have a burn cycle of 15 to 17 years, but ideally, most fynbos should burn in a 10 to 15 year cycle. Increasingly, however, we’re seeing areas burn with much greater frequency. ”

He shared a series of GIS maps with veld-age overlays which show that about 70% of the land under CapeNature jurisdiction has burned within the last 10 years, noting that this can lead to species extinction.

Turning to recent press reports that the new fire season is likely to be no worse than the previous season, he said: “I think that might be the case for the greater Cape Town area, but in the landscape central region of CapeNature’s jurisdiction, I think it’s going to be a busy season.”

According to Mr Dreyer, CapeNature’s fire suppression objectives for landscape central are focused on rapid response. “All efforts will be made to keep fires to a minimum size. All fires are to be suppressed immediately unless agreed otherwise in conjunction with the fire protection officer,” he said.

“A principle of rapid large-scale attack will be followed, whereby the entire reserve’s, as well as closest neighbouring reserve’s resources, will be called out immediately on the reporting of a fire.

“Aerial support will be called out immediately for initial attack (in the first hour) in the central landscape, in predetermined hotspots and eco-sensitive areas.”

After the induction ceremony, the new recruits were subjected to the traditional wetting down – always unexpected – with a firehose, wielded by Winelands Fire Protection Association general manager, Dale Nortje.

Cape Winelands Fire and Rescue (CWFR) also attended the event, arriving with a fully crewed motor pump and skid unit, which allowed the new recruits to experience what it is like to wield a really big firehose, while, as Mr Nortje puts it, “putting the blue stuff on the red stuff.”

But it was when the CWFR set up the foam unit, that all the children present – adult and otherwise – abandoned all inhibitions and just had fun.

Norman McFarlane is a volunteer firefighter at the VWS Grabouw firebase.

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