South Africa — Forty fire-fighting pilots are being trained to prepare for the long dry season which brings with it the danger of runaway wildfires.
The firefighters are completing the Working on Fire (WoF) programme, ahead of the fire season which starts on 1 June in north-eastern South Africa.
“The Working on Fire pilots are undergoing five days of training, recapping advanced aerial fire fighting procedures,” said WoF spokesperson Evelyn Holtzhausen on Thursday.
The training began on Monday and ends on Friday.
WoF is a government-funded, multi-partner organisation focused on integrated fire management and veld- and wildfire-fighting.
Last year, pilots were stretched to the limit when wildfires raged across Mpumalanga, as well as parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
In July and August last year, wildfires destroyed an estimated 63 000 hectares of land, including plantations and grazing land in 13 of Mpumalanga’s 18 local municipalities.
Seventeen people, including six firefighters, were killed, while 27 were injured.
This season, pilots will fly helicopters, spotter and bomber planes in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, Free State, North West, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
WoF air operations manager, Guy Waller, said the training covered the understanding of fire weather to advanced aerial fire-fighting with simulated fires.
“Aerial fire-fighting is dangerous and unpredictable. Our training constantly reinforces the message that it’s never worth losing your life fighting a fire,” said Mr Waller.
He said that fire-fighting pilots worked in the worst conditions imaginable, such as high wind, smoke and heat, with 1000 litres of water hanging from a bucket tied to an aircraft.
“The bomber and helicopter pilots who drop water on the flames have to fly low in smoke. The procedures to fly in these conditions are revised ahead of every season,” Mr Waller said.
He said 500 firefighters from Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng will attend a basic survival and fire safety training course in Ermelo next week.
WoF’s ground crews would revise fire procedures, with 22 teams being trained in first aid, safety, discipline and physical fitness.
WoF programme manager, Fred Mokgope, said discipline and training had saved many lives over many years despite the fact that “fire suppression” was dangerous.
“It’s something we drive home during this week with our firefighters, especially the new recruits who haven’t seen a fire season yet,” said Mr Mokgope.
The course in Ermelo will focus on team camaraderie between fire fighters who worked together on the front line of wild fires.
“The training is militaristic in the sense that we demand a high level of physical fitness and discipline while emphasising to the firefighters that they are part of an elite unit and that what they do saves lives and property,” Mr Mokgope said.
According to Fred Favard, WoF training manager, the basic fire safety and survival training are compulsory for all firefighters ahead of the wild fire season.
He said the disciplines would ensure that firefighters remain safe themselves while saving other people’s lives.