South Africa: The Forest Fire Association: A Portrait (IFFN No. 11 – July 1994)


The Forest Fire Association: A Portrait

(IFFN No. 11 – July 1994, p. 8-10)

The Forest Fire Association (FFA) is a private forest fire fighting organisation which was started in 1976 in the Eastern Transvaal province of South Africa, covering a total land area of 5 million ha of which 600,000 ha are planted with trees. FFA’s main base is situated at the town of Nelspruit with three regional bases at Peat Retief, Warburton and Tzaneen. These regional bases have permanently staffed operation centres with aircraft based between 1 June and 31 October every year. The FFA operates off 60 secondary bases from which water, chemicals, and aircraft fuel are available. They are ideally not more than 20 km apart.

The following service is provided by the FFA to its members:

Four operation centres: These centres coordinate the movements of all spotters, bombers and helicopters, including the Air Force helicopters which come in to assist from time to time. The operational centres supply weather forecasts daily, calculated locally at each center with computer programmes, as well as coordinate the planning, containing and reaction to all fires in the area.

Seven spotter aircraft: Cessna C-182 and C-206 are used which are equipped with the most up to date radio and communication equipment (NAT AMS 44) and flown by spotter pilots with individually more than 3 years of fire fighting experience (at present an experience of 38 years of spotter flying has been accumulated). These aircraft play a vital role in fire fighting and are used as a control platform for fire bosses as well as controlling and directing ground resources, bombers and helicopters.

Twelve water bombers: The M-18 Dromaders and Ayres Thrushes are used to bomb fires because of the terrain and landing areas limiting the operations to single-engine agriculture type aircraft with a delivery rate of 17,000 litres of foam/hr. Up to a maximum of eight water bombers are used on an individual fire, giving a total delivery rate of 136,000 litres of foam/hr. All water is loaded on land based airstrips with a loading time from wheels touch to wheels off of maximum three minutes. These aircraft are flown by pilots with no less than at least 3 years of fire-fighting experience or 3 years of crop spraying experience. At this stage the bomber pilots have combined 49 years of fire fighting experience.

One Helicopter: One MI-8 Russian helicopter is used and has the capacity to carry 22 firefighters or a Bambi bucket with a capacity of 3,500 l. The airborne team is normally made up to 4 rapattackers (or: helirapellers) and ±16 unit crew members. In 1993 operations were extremely successful, and the system will be operational again in 1994.

The FFA is called to ± 200 fires and is flying ±800 hours per season. It has managed to reduce both the size and duration of fires by 50% over the first five years of operation.

The directors of the Forest Fire Association have introduced a number of changes to transform the organisation into a more efficient and economic body. The reorganized FFA is based on four related and integrated elements: a strong central organisation with regional control centres, aerial fire fighting services under a single resource-sharing umbrella, a rapid initial attack and a swift, effective deployment of resources to fires.

This decision has necessitated the FFA to shed other non-fire activities such as crop spraying and charters. The FFA has been reorganised into a leading edge organization characterized by centralization, by strategic decision making at the directors’ level, and by autonomy of tactical decision making at branch level. With this streamlined chain of command, the decision-making process is greatly simplified. The great strength of centralisation is the reduced number of resources that are needed to provide an efficient and affordable service. This is the only way to combat the rising cost. One of the fundamental goals of the FFA is to control efficiently forest fires at the lowest possible costs. In this context, fire must be detected practically at the moment of ignition and then effectively and correctly fought in the first stages in order to guarantee that the initial attack will be a success and the overall cost minimized.

At present it is being negotiated to install the highly successful SRI-10 fire detection system on a trial basis at Warburton. If it proves to be of benefit it will be expanded as necessary. The FFA has agreed to make available the operation centres at Warburton for the installation of Alenia Equipment. The intention is to operate the FFA equipment parallel to the Alenia equipment. The suppliers Degli/Alenia will be responsible for the installation and setting up of the equipment in the Warburton operation center as well as at the local tower observation post. In addition the company will provide FFA with an implementation schedule to coordinate the installation with the Warburton personnel. In turn, personnel at this center will offer advice on the existing equipment and procedures at the center.

FFA personnel at Warburton have agreed to undergo a short training course presented by Degli/Alenia on the operation of the equipment at the Warburton center. They have also agreed to operate the equipment according to the training, and where necessary record and provide Degli with data as required to accurately access the equipment.

The degree of the effectiveness of the initial attack ultimately determines the magnitude of a forest fire. The planning of the attack, its launching and its conduct are an integral part of the FFA. At the fire control centre, the success of an initial attack relies on the strategic management of aerial and land-based resources as well as rapid decision making. The immediate deployment of forces on alert, swift intervention and close monitoring of results are critical to success. Considering this statement FFA is negotiating the establishment of a radio network using latest trunking technology, taking into consideration a business plan and feasibility study, network design, site selection and radio coverage prediction. 

Considering the achievements, technical developments and operational experiences of key fire fighting systems worldwide, to make a success of aerial fire fighting in South Africa, we must focus on a new structure to achieve smaller fire losses at lower costs, uniform standards and policies, and the involvement of all members. With this in mind, the new FFA structure has been changed to a total of five directors elected by the members at the annual general meeting. In addition four branch chairmen will be elected at branch level and will have representation on the board of directors. One full time general manager will be employed by the FFA. Four branch managers will be contracted for the fire season to service the Nelspruit, Warburton, Piet Retief and Tzaneen branches. Services and equipment such as spotters, bombers, helicopters and administrative contacts will be negotiated with specialist companies. This then relieves the FFA of the responsibility of employing pilots and personnel, acquiring capital items such as aircraft, hangars, and buildings. All risks are thus removed from the FFA operators and exposure is minimized.

The FFA will concentrate on providing its members with the best service possible. Services will continue to include spotters, bombers, helicopters, communication, centralisation, resource sharing, effectiveness, initial attack, fire management systems, fire weather monitoring systems, training, statistical gathering and many more fire-related subjects that are continually being developed to help to overcome the ever threatening problem of fire destroying natural resources and environment.


Fig.1. Organizational diagram/line of command of the Forest Fire Association (FFA)
(will be added)



From:  Johann Heine
General Manager
Forest Fire Association
Operations Centre, Nelspruit Airport
P.O. Box 4555
SA – Nelspruit 1200

Fax:     ++27-1311-41761
Phone: ++27-1311-41030/1

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