The line of hazard tape running down the slope towards the road, indicates the fireline, which the two firefighters are attacking.
The 45mm hose is heavy, ungainly, and the footing is poor, the veld sodden after a night of teeming rain, and they struggle to keep advancing up the line as the “fire” is “extinguished”. And the rain is still falling.
The stutter of the pumps delivering water from the river to the porta-pool on the roadway, and from there to the hose attacking the fireline, is muted by the rain, but so too are my shouted instructions, as trainer Paul Lutz tosses yet another indicator of a spot fire into the fynbos, and I hastily assign two crew members to get water onto it, before it runs out of control.
It is midway through training season for the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), and three crews, each a mix of active members and new recruits, are being put through their paces in a series of simulated firefighting exercises in the Franschhoek mountains.
That is a frigid winter’s day, with the rain falling steadily, matters not. We are all soaked to the skin, despite wearing waterproof rain jackets. Just like fighting a fire during the heat of fire season, this arduous winter training exercise means that under the rain jackets, we are drenched with sweat. Moving helps to maintain core temperature.
The training exercise, Vastrap, spans a weekend, having commenced with a simulated deployment from VWS Jonkershoek firebase at Delvera on the R44, to the staging point at the top end of the Berg Dam, from where the three crews hiked in to the first scenario – a simulated fire burning above the Berg River, driven by a north-westerly wind.
Jeep track access means we can utilise the most efficient means to suppress the fire – water – rather than using hand tools – beaters and rake hoes – which on the overwhelming majority of fires, is our standard tactic. Although we seldom get to use water, it is vital that when we do, we are able to deploy pumps, roll out hoses, and “put the blue stuff on the red stuff” within minutes of arriving at the fireline, so this scenario is a vital part of our activities during training season, which spans the period May 1 to October 31 each year.
The mix of active members and new recruits on each crew, ensures that those of us who have one or more fire seasons under our belts, can work closely with the new recruits, as they develop the skills and competencies they require to successfully complete all their skills evaluations, so that they can be inducted as active firefighters, at the annual induction ceremony.
But the presence of active members is not restricted to instruction; each year, every active member must complete the same training that new recruits undergo – a minimum of five training activities, consisting of two hikes, two scenarios, and a fifth activity, which can be either.
Vastrap counts for one hike and one scenario, making it an attractive option for satisfying the minimum training requirement, for those who struggle to find the time to attend sufficient training sessions, many of which take place during the week at night, often concluding close to midnight.
But beyond the hikes and scenarios, a number of evening lectures also take place, covering topics like fire theory, map work and navigation, and basic first aid.
Driver training also takes place during training season, with candidates undergoing instruction and evaluation in our venerable Land Rover Defender crew transporters, the more modern Ford Transit crew transporters, and the Ford Ranger skid units – a bakkie kitted out with a 500l polypropylene water tank, pump, and hoses.
But underpinning all this training, is the need for physical fitness and endurance, both cardiovascular and upper body, to ensure you can cope with an arduous hike of anything up to five hours duration to the fireline, wearing full personal protective equipment, carrying a backpack and hand tool, and then spend up to 12 hours fighting a fire.
The baseline physical fitness assessment is completing the international firefighter work capacity test: a 4.8km course, carrying a 20.5kg backpack, in under 45 minutes, walking only, no running permitted. Wildland firefighting isn’t a sprint. It is more akin to a marathon, requiring stamina.
The pumps and hoses exercise concludes, and we are debriefed, focusing on the most obvious errors. When a spot fire threatened one of our vehicles, why did we not instruct a driver to simply move it before getting water onto it?
Who left the suction hose for the third pump at base? I blush crimson; it was me, a grievous error. Why didn’t we coordinate better between the three crews, and avoid getting the hose-lays entangled?
Why, when your crew did not respond as rapidly as you required, did you start the pump yourself? I blush once more; it is my job to control the crew, not get tunnel vision and do the job myself.
But as the trainers reinforce, it is better to make these mistakes and learn from them here, where the consequences are not potentially fatal, rather than in the future, if we get to lead a crew on the fireline.
We tackle the arduous hike through the mountains, the three crews moving together, navigating using hand-held GPSs, and maintaining regular contact with incident command.
The hike is about nine kilometres, with an elevation gain of 457m, and as time passes, it begins to take its toll.
Inevitably, some are faster than others, and although we urge the crews to maintain a good pace, we end up moving at the pace of the slowest hiker.
As fatigue sets in the need to remain vigilant means the crew leaders regularly check with crew members how they are coping mentally and physically, and ensuring that they are hydrating adequately, and eating to maintain energy levels. Counter-intuitively, it is frighteningly easy to dehydrate in cold and wet conditions, when engaging in arduous physical activity.
The rain is still falling, and the relentless wind adds to our woes, chilling us even more.
Every 10km/* of wind speed means one degree of wind chill, and about midway through the hike, I estimate the temperature is around three degrees Celcius. Hypothermia is a very real risk, so staying on the move is vital.
We reach the point of no return. There is no vehicular access to two thirds of the route, so once we are pass the halfway mark, even if there is an injury, we have to complete the hike.
We top the final rise, and descend once more into the valley, arriving at our next scenario – structure protection – as dusk fades into night.
Although we are wildland firefighters, there will come a time when we have to protect structures located on the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and this exercise requires us to scout the structures we have to protect, assess fire defensibility of each, identify hazards and formulate mitigating measures, note water sources and any usable resources in the area.
The rain is still falling steadily, and the inky blackness raises the risks, but this is a vital part of out training: coping with fatigue, while fighting fires aggressively, but always providing for safety first.
Trainer Peter Hagen sketches our scenario. We must protect two structures located among towering stony pines, in the face of a wind driven advancing fireline.
The crew leaders formulate a plan of attack, one of us, Diedre Odendaal, acting as strike team leader.
In short order, our crews get hoses rolled out, get the pumps on the skid units primed and running, and commence their assault on the fire. Suddenly, we are advised that the wind has shifted dramatically, and spot fires are igniting around the feet of the firefighters at the branch (the nozzle that delivers water).
Then, catastrophically, the 500l of water in the skid unit tank is exhausted, and we have to fall back, abandoning the hose, once more observing the maxim of always providing for safety first.
We give the make-up command, and the crews roll up the hoses, stash all the firefighting equipment and hike out to the staging area. Soaked to the skin, approaching exhaustion, we yearn for the sanctuary of the Voortrekker camp at Wemmershoek, where we will spend the night: a hot shower and a hot meal await.
And then the welcome surprise. Training manager, Henrietta Brock, who has organised and managed the entire experience, tells us the Franschhoek community has stepped up to feed us, so off to the NG church we go, and upon entering the toasty warm kitchen we are greeted by the mouthwatering aroma of a hearty soup and freshly baked cobs of sourdough bread, made by the larger-than-life Chris Erasmus, owner and executive chef of Foliage Restaurant, ably assisted by Winelands Fire Protection Association ward leader, Ashley Bauer.
A grinning Chris ladles generous helpings of soup into bowls and the crews settle down at the long-table in the hall.
As the relative warmth of the hall takes the chill off our sodden uniforms, the mood lightens and we talk over the day’s activities while we eat possibly the most delicious meal I’ve ever had.
We eventually take our leave of Chris and Ashley, and head for our overnight lodgings. After a hot shower we hang up our sodden uniforms, engage in an exhaustive debrief of the day’s activities, and grab what sleep we can before Sunday’s scenarios unfold – a complex navigation and map work exercise, followed by a hand tools exercise, clearing a five-metre wide 600m long fire-belt, then back to base, and home to prepare for our day jobs on Monday.
Norman McFarlane is a volunteer wildland firefighter at Volunteer Wildfire Services.