Women carry equal weight

In 2016, sisters Deidré, Liesel and Maryna Odendaal all joined VWS to challenge themselves and to make a difference. Deidré, pictured, is a PhD student, and has enjoyed meeting amazing people who take the time to volunteer and make a difference in their community during their spare time.

Fire doesn’t discriminate. That’s why women joining Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) have to meet exactly the same qualification criteria as men, including completing the arduous pack test over 4.8km within 45 minutes with a 20.5kg pack on the back.

Since VWS was founded in 1999/2000, women have played an equal and important role in the organisation’s success – as active firefighters, crew leaders, drivers, critical support crew, station management members and board representatives.

Today, Wednesday March 8, is International Women’s Day, and VWS would like to acknowledge the part women play in its success.

For Hayley Hagen, founder of the VWS Jonkershoek base near Stellenbosch, it has been a privilege to watch the spark of an idea develop into a passionate and thriving station.

“My reward is my yellow family,” she says, referring to the VWS uniform colour. It is not without its challenges, though.

“Keeping a balance between your day job, family life and commitments to VWS and the partners we work with is the toughest part of being a VWS member. Harnessing one’s passion for ‘the cause’ can be a very tough juggling act, especially during fire season as the demands behind the scenes are enormous on our volunteers,” she adds.

Louise Keegan, a maths teacher, has been a VWS member for four years.

“The toughest part of being a member is when there is a big fire and I really want to go, but I have other responsibilities. The most rewarding part is the feeling I get when sitting with my crew after a tough shift, looking back at a mountain that is no longer burning.”

After two seasons, Jen Fill, a post-doctoral researcher at Stellenbosch University, has found that the toughest part is going that extra mile, just when you thought you were nearing the finish line.

“You’ve been out all day or all night and just when you think the job is done, something happens or you’re needed somewhere else,” she says.

But there is reward even in those situations.

“It is then that you develop the strongest bonds with your crew – when the going gets tough.”

She finds it hard to identify the most rewarding part of being a VWS member.

“There are too many rewarding parts to choose just one. It could be the often formidable challenge, the perpetual camaraderie, the utter exhaustion, the incredible sights, the surge of adrenaline, the invaluable memories, and the knowledge that these people are your friends and family for life.”

Zaan Bester, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University, joined VWS last year.

She mentions the physical challenges. “We often hike across and work on very steep terrain.

“The rewarding part, though, is the incredible camaraderie among members and the opportunity to work in some of the most scenic areas, experiencing nature in all its raw glory.”

With approximately 220 members at four stations at Newlands, Jonkershoek, South Peninsula and most recently Grabouw, VWS is a highly organised non-profit organisation, run and managed by volunteers.

VWS has assisted the Table Mountain National Park, CapeNature, Overberg District Municipality and Winelands District Municipality with some of the wildest fires Cape Town and the Western Cape have experienced.

Recruitment information sessions will be hosted in March and April. Follow Volunteer Wildfire Services on Facebook for information, or email recruitment@vws.org.za