Relief Fund

10 September 2007

published by http://wildfiremag.com

One relationship has spanned the Atlantic Ocean for more than a decade and has spawned one of the most successful firefightingprograms on the African continent.

Working on Fire is a South African government-funded, multi-partnerorganization focused on integrated fire management and wildland firefighting.But its roots go back to the United States, where for many years officials from the U.S. Forest Service shared theirexpertise with visiting South African firefighters.

Inspired by the programs they saw, the South African firefighters eventuallydeveloped their own version to suit their landscape, both physically andeconomically. The program has been phenomenally effective, so much so thatfirefighters from the United States want to visit South Africa to observe and learn. Currently, both countries are engaged in a trainingexchange in what is becoming a satisfying reciprocal relationship.

“I started visiting North America some 10 years ago with the express aim of studying the firefighting andmanagement systems in place,” says Johan Heine, Working on Fire generalmanager. “At the time I was a manager with the South African Forest FireAssociation [FFA is a private sector wildland firefighting initiative], and Iwas very keen to see what kind of infrastructure had been built up by the [U.S.Forest Service] and associated agencies.”

After several years of regular visits, the FFA was awarded a tender by theSouth African government’s Department of Water Affairs and Forestry to implementan aerial and ground resource plan for fighting wildfires. Heine and his SouthAfrican colleagues arrived at a strategy which they felt could be practicallyapplied in their own country. Working on Fire was officially launched in 2003,combining sound land management principles and best practice wildlandfirefighting expertise with the need to create jobs and develop skills.

The project has proved an astounding success, winning awards for itsinnovative approach and praise for its effective design. Essentially, it is aprogram based on international principles with a distinctly indigenous twist.For instance, unlike in the United States where firefighting squads often are made up of seasonal workers, Working onFire employs on a long-term basis.

“What we did was look at what works and then adapted it,” says ValCharlton, Working on Fire’s advocacy and awareness manager. “It would havebeen pointless to reinvent the wheel, not to mention the cost in terms of timeand effort.”

A recent visit to the Firewise Communities USA Conference in Denver, provided further encouragement and inspiration, as Working on Fire is alsotasked with rolling out a national fire awareness program. “Once again, wehave been able to learn from the USA,” says Charlton. Firewise SA rollout commenced in the Western Cape Summerfire season and will extend to the northern parts of South Africa during 2007.

“There are a lot of similarities between the U.S. and South Africa, which helped the process,” says Charlton. “The American prairies are likeour grasslands. And areas such as California and the Western Cape are very much alike — you can compare chaparral and fynbos, for example. Bothburn like crazy — and they need to be allowed to burn as they are fire adaptedecosystems, but both areas have an extensive and highly populated wildland-urbaninterface zone.”

And when they do burn, there’s trouble. In South Africa, as in the United States, fires regularly destroy large tracts of land including farms and plantations,endangering lives and properties in the process.

Of course, there are differences, too. The United States has vast tracts of natural, slow growing coniferous forests, whereassub-Saharan African savannas and grasslands benefit from short fire cycles of afew years.


Sociologically, there are other differences. While the end of racediscrimination and the establishment of a new democracy has successfullytransformed many sectors within South Africa, the country is grappling with a very high unemployment rate. Figures vary, butaverage at around 30% of the population. Of those without jobs, many are youngwith little or no career options.

With this group in mind, Working on Fire was established as a poverty reliefprogram that has recruited and trained previously unemployed men and women intoa national resource of more than 1,000 proud firefighters to date. This includes47 teams of 22-person Hot Shot crews and 100 crew leaders who are deployed at 47fire bases in eight fire-prone regions across the country. Primarily the crewsact as hand crews and use mainly hand tools to accomplish their work.

Of the recruits who have been trained, 95% are between 18 and 35 years old,27% are women and 77% are black. They are employed full time on a one-yearcontract, which is renewed annually based on performance. The program laststhree years. Firefighters earn a basic wage of ZAR42.50 (approximately $6) perday. Type 2 crew leaders earn ZAR98.98 ($14) and Type 1 crew leaders earn ZAR120($17) per day. For many of the recruits, this is the very first time they areearning a regular salary.

The program was established under the umbrella of the Expanded Public WorksProgram, underpinned by South Africa’s National Veld and Forest Act of 1998 and the Disaster Management Act of 2002.The Working for Water Program of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestryfunds the program to the tune of ZAR47.3 million ($6.75 million) per year.Partnerships with the Department of Provincial and Local Government, the SouthAfrican Air Force, South African National Parks, Provincial Disaster ManagementAuthorities, and private forestry companies, amongst others, ensure substantialcost and efficiency benefits.

Apart from the ground crews, Working on Fire comprises several othercomponents. This includes a team of aerial firefighting professionals, whooperate helicopters, fixed wing bombers and spotter aircraft. These aerialresources are coordinated locally, provincially and nationally, forming a poolavailable to support ground forces with initial attack actions.

Working on Fire also runs provincial operational centers, which coordinatethe movements of all Working on Fire ground and aerial resources. Theoperational centers supply long and short-term fire weather forecasts daily, andcoordinate the planning, reaction and suppression of fires in their areas.

As a national organization, Working on Fire requires management andoperations structures that can function separately and independently. Theenterprise is headed by a chief executive officer and five senior executivemanagers responsible for the individual portfolios of corporate services,finance, ground operations, air operations and advocacy.

Reporting to the executive management team are nine senior managersresponsible for the day-to-day running of the organization in areas such ashuman resources, training and communications. Reporting to these managers areeight regional managers, who liaise with 50 partner base managers regarding thedaily operation of crews who are guided by a crew leader.

“In all, Working on Fire employs just over 1,400 people nationally,” saysHeine. Of these, it is the 1,056 firefighters who make up the most visible faceof the organization, instantly identifiable at the scene of any major wildfirein their bright yellow uniforms. For many of the recruits, joining Working onFire has drastically changed their lives.

Take 25-year-old Khomotso Moagi of Bushbuckridge. A single mother with twochildren aged eight and six living in an area with chronic unemployment, she wasfinding it hard to support her family. When she heard Working on Fire wasrecruiting firefighters, she applied.

The interview process included a tough physical test that featured runningand push-ups. Firefighters working in wilderness conditions need to be fit tocope with the demands of the job. Fortunately, Moagi had what was needed. Shegot the job, and two years later is taking on leadership opportunities withinthe program.

She was one of the lucky ones. Given unemployment statistics it has beencommon for up to 300 people to apply for 22 jobs at Working on Fire. Fitness isnot the only requirement — mental acuteness, career objectives and pastworking experience also counts. However, literacy is not a criteria. Rather, theability to work in a team, physical stamina and a cooperative mentality areprized capabilities in candidates.

And once an individual has landed a post with Working on Fire, thecompetition doesn’t stop there. A tough three-day induction course preparestrainees for the kind of conditions they will face while employed by Working onFire.

They will be on call to fight fires in mountains, in forestry plantations andin grasslands throughout the country. Teams may be based in their home regionbut could be away for up to six weeks at a time, living in communal tents andfaring for themselves. There are two recognizable fire seasons in the country,the dry summer months in the Western Cape and the dry winter months throughout the rest of the country, which means teamscan be kept busy pretty much throughout the year.

For firefighters with children, this can be difficult but many make specialplans to cope.

“As a firefighter you have to be able to give your full attention to thejob at hand,” says Moagi, who has placed her children in the care of herparents” I prefer being single and knowing my children are in safe hands.”

The training standards set by Working on Fire meet and exceed the ForestProtection Units Standards. The program has adopted standards from the United States. Known as the Task Book System, this lists tasks the candidate must be able tocomplete before he or she is regarded as competent.

Essential Working on Fire training takes place during a recruit’s first yearand includes standard firefighting procedures and safety rules, attack methodsand tools, and how to handle equipment such as pumps and hoses. Hot Shot crewsare provided with tools and personal protective equipment and taught how to usethem. Training is thorough; for example, all Working on Fire teams have mop-uptraining and use cold trailing handheld infrared heat detectors to ensure thatfires do not re-ignite because they were not properly extinguished. There aredaily physical training sessions and job-related lectures (on first aid and firebehavior, for example) as well as life skills courses covering issues such aspersonal banking and HIV/AIDS awareness.

There has been a very low attrition rate among recruits, with only a fewpeople dropping off the training course due to reasons that could not have beenforeseen.

“There’s a very strict code of conduct within the Working on Fire program,and our operation is military in style,” says Heine. “It’s very necessary,in order for firefighters to perform in dangerous and stressful conditions.”

Teams are taught to look out for themselves and for each other, and that thelife of a Working on Fire employee is paramount. At the same time, they needhave the discipline to maneuver at maximum capacity — and that means beingable to function as a well-drilled unit.

“Any breaches of discipline or regulations results in instant dismissal,”says Heine. “We have a zero-tolerance policy. As anybody who fights wildfiresknows, you cannot afford to ignore commands in a high-risk situation.”

Within this disciplined outfit a strong sense of camaraderie has built upamong the firefighters. Morale is high, and there is positive, friendlycompetition between Hot Shot crews. Heine credits aspects of the program such asits open-door policy at all levels of management and its clarity aboutconditions of employment as reasons. But there are other factors; one of themost important is the sense of pride that these firefighters, previouslyunemployed and disadvantaged, have in their work.

“I wanted to be part of this program more than anything,” says PhumzaMatitiba, a recruit who came though the ranks to become regional manager of the Eastern Cape, responsible for 100 firefighters. “Fighting fire has given me a spirit. Ithas shown me that I can be someone, that I can reach my potential. I know now Ican be a leader.”


As well as tackling wildfires around South Africa — in 2005 Working on Fire assisted in fighting in more than 1,000 nationally— the program is also involved in new firefighting innovations in South Africa.

One of these is the Operation Firewatch Project, an early detection and rapidattack firefighting project currently being tested in Cape Town. This project uses forest firefighting techniques to suppress fires in slumareas. Fires are identified though strategically placed video cameras that sendreal-time images to a centralized computer monitoring center where trainedpersonnel activate city ground forces and Working on Fire aerial firefightingresources.

This has proved extremely effective in combating fires in informalsettlements where homemade shacks are built very close to each other, often ofhighly flammable material, and burn fast and fiercely. The results of such firesare often devastating. More than 100 people died in nearly 2,000 informalsettlement fires in Cape Town and surrounds during 2005. Over 8,000 housing structures were destroyed,leaving 28,000 people destitute. The material cost to residents wasconservatively estimated at around ZAR91 million ($13 million).

Because informal settlements continue to grow, due to a formal housingshortage, the fires will continue. According to a Central Statistical Servicespresentation in the South African Parliament in April 2005, informal housingsettlements were home to an estimated 1.45 million households in 2001, with anexpected 2% growth per year. Statistics show that shack fires are increasing.

“Fighting fires in informal settlements presents its own set of challenges,”says Heine. “Delays in initial reporting of fires, the intense heat generatedby highly flammable building materials, tricky — sometimes impossible —access, and a lack of water hydrants are just some of the difficultiesfirefighters face.

“While Working on Fire focuses primarily on veld and wild firefighting,there are overlaps in the way we tackle these fires and how informal settlementfires can be approached. Delivering water to a fire is the best way to quicklyextinguish it. With a lack of water points in informal settlements, it makessense to drop non-toxic foam to cool down an area so land-based firefighters canmove in.”

To this end, when a fire has been spotted, firefighting methods are improvedby the use of spotter aircraft, fixed-wing bomber aircraft and helicopterassistance as a rapid aerial firefighting response, dropping Class A foam tocontain and cool the fire.

It all forms a part of establishing a long-term, sustainable integrated firemanagement system in South Africa. It’s a system which features both private and public involvement, and which issupported by various new pieces of legislation such as the 1998 the NationalVeld and Forest Fire Act, which places the responsibility for the starting andspreading of a wildfire with the land user, and actively promotes the formationof local fire protection associations.

“We can’t force people to form or join FPAS, which can make a hugedifference in terms of cooperatively fighting wildfires — but we can encouragethem,” says Charlton.

Education is extremely important in this respect — and here too Working onFire members play a role, giving talks and demonstrations to the public andhelping their own communities to become more fire-wise.

In recognition of the essential service that Working on Fire provides, theprogram received the prestigious Impumelelo Innovations Platinum Award last year,awarded to projects that are “innovative, sustainable and replicable.”

And this year, Working on Fire will receive further national governmentfunding of ZAR196 million ($28 million) over the next three years to maintainits efforts in facilitating and implementing integrated fire management practiceacross South Africa. It will use this budget according to a predetermined plan,focusing primarily upon creating centers of excellence in 40 high fire-riskareas, aerial and ground wildland firefighting, general education and awarenessabout wildland fires, upskilling and capacity building under the employmentcreation component, facilitating cost-sharing partnerships, improving nationalcoordination of firefighting resources, weather forecasting and fire fuelreduction measures.

Heine is understandably pleased with all of this, but says there is stillmuch work to be done.

“In the United States there are around 30,000 firefighters,” he says. “A percentage are seasonal,but it’s still a substantial figure. I reckon we need 5,000 permanent wildlandfirefighters in South Africa in order to function optimally.

“We’ll just keep going. It’s been nothing but a success since we started,so we know we’re doing something right.”

Integrated fire management is a series of actions that includes fireawareness activities, fire prevention activities, prescribed burning, resourcesharing and co-ordination, fire detection, fire suppression and fire damagerehabilitation at local, provincial and national levels to create a sustainableand well balanced environment, reduce unwanted wildfire damage and promote thebeneficial use of fire.

Karen Rutter is a correspondent for theWorking on Fire program.


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