Wildland fires push firefighters to the limit

Wildland fires push firefighters to the limit

25 February 2009

published by www.hwb.co.za

South Africa — Wildland firefighters in the Western Cape a have been pushed to the limit by the number and intensity of wild fires burning in the region over the past few weeks.

In February Working on Fire aircraft, including spotter planes and helicopters have been deployed for close to 340 hours in veldfire fighting. And close to 400 wildfire fighters from bases around the province have been continually deployed since the beginning of February.

Injuries to WoF wildland firefighters have been kept to a minimum thanks to firefighters adhering to very strict safety rules, ingrained during their training.

“We were warned we were in for a bad spell,” said WoF’s Western Cape provincial manager Pierre Combrinck. “The fire season in the Western Cape started late but there has been no respite and Working on Fire teams — and our partner firefighters from local municipalities and farms are all are exhausted,” he said.

Last week Working on Fire sent two Samil trucks with two additional teams of wildfire fighters from the Bultfontein and Golden Gate bases to provide additional support to local operation. These additional teams are now on standby at the Nuweberg and Waterval bases respectively.

“It’s not about to let up with the season expected to stretch into May”, said Combrinck.

On one day alone 90 fires were reported with some blazes, near Stellenbosch and Somerset West, so entrenched they were virtually impossible to extinguish.

In one case, a wild fire in the Lourensford, Vergelegen, Wederville, Knorhoek & High Riding Estate near Somerset West has been burning for almost three weeks.

“Seasonal high winds have helped to fan the flames, while billowing smoke — particularly early this week — created a “fog” which vered the entire region from Somerset West to Table Mountain and the Cape Town City Bowl.

Thick smoke, like this, reduced visibility and hampered aerial support for firefighters on the ground.

Working on Fire firefighters have been working alongside firefighters and volunteers from the City of Cape Town, Cape Winelands District Municipality, and other partner organisations in a united effort to halt the fires.

“Forecasters told us that global warning would raise the risk of wild fire. Day after day we have had orange and red days back to back, it has been hectic.

“These round-the-clock blazes are pushing all the wildland fire fighters to breaking point”, said Combrinck.

He added that training camps prior to the fire season had been invaluable in raising levels of fitness among WoF teams.

FFA Aviation MD Johan Heine said the number and intensity of the fires in the Western Cape had taken a toll on aerial firefighting resources.

“Aircraft need to be serviced and pilots need to rest”, he said. “We are currently in talks with our partners about adequately resourcing for the Western Cape Fire season.”

Heine said he had nothing but praise for the pilots and ground crews who had worked far beyond the call of duty in their efforts to support wild land firefighters on the ground. “I acknowledge their dedication and the work they have done and continue to do in the best traditions of wild fire fighting,” he concluded.

“When we see the toll the fires in Australia have taken on their wild fire fighters we can only be relieved that we have not suffered as much and say well done to the WOF fire fighters in the air and on the ground for their record of safety and fire fighting efforts,” said Mike Hill, FFA Group MD.

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