Female firefighter on top of her game

As fires raged across six provinces this week, killing at least two people and causing billions of rands’ damage, Khomotso Moagi was making sure the fighters tackling the flames had the firepower to put them out. The 27-year-old single mother from Bushbuckridge played a critical role in managing the crews battling runaway fires in the tinder-dry grasslands and commercial forestry plantations in Mpumalanga.

Moagi is the assistant national training manager at Working on Fire, the national firefighting programme which this week mobilised 29 fire-fighting crews from seven provinces to fight at least 85 separate fires.

Fred Favard, the national training manager, said that although Moagi had been with the programme for only two years, she was a natural leader. “She has proved in the current disaster that she was more than up to the challenge of assisting her colleagues in the field,” he said.

Hundreds of families’ homes were razed across the provinces, a six-year-old girl was burnt to death when she was trapped in her house in KwaZulu-Natal and, in Limpopo, a 53-year-old farmer was killed when his helicopter crashed as he was assessing the blaze.

But Moagi stayed dead calm during the crisis. A powerful woman who is always sure of her next step, well-informed and fit enough to be an Olympic athlete, she was a natural choice for recruiters looking for firefighters to join Working on Fire. “I always wanted to be a soldier, but making my dream come true wasn’t as easy as I expected,” she says. “It might still happen, but in the meanwhile I have found my place at Working on Fire.”

The firefighters recruited by Working on Fire were unemployed before joining the programme, which now comprises 40 bases countrywide. Moagi has moved through the ranks to become a leader and inspiration to her fellows.

“Before I joined, I was involved in another government poverty alleviation programme, but I wasn’t earning enough to support my family. I wanted opportunity. I wanted to feel I had a purpose and was going somewhere with my life,” she says.

By May 2004, Moagi was made a level-two crew leader, responsible for the lives of 22 crew members. Less than a year later, in February 2005, she was promoted to level one.

In August this year, she moved away from the front line to become assistant national training manager. “I move around the country all the time now, working with our teams. I can’t believe this is my life sometimes.”

Moagi grew up in Bushbuckridge, near the western border of the Kruger National Park. The bustling settlement is surrounded by vast pine forests which are the heart of South Africa’s paper and pulp industry — and easy tinder for fire. “The forestry industry creates work for thousands of people, and the impact of a fire on the community can be devastating,” says Moagi. “I knew when I joined Working on Fire that the programme could make a real difference in my community.”

When she finished matric at Skukuza High School, Moagi completed a year-long computer course in Namakgale (Phalaborwa) before beginning the search for a job. These were tough years as the young mother battled to study, look after her two babies and earn a living.

Moagi’s sister, a waitress in Graskop, heard Working on Fire was looking for firefighters. When Moagi went to the interview and was asked to run 2,4km, followed by a series of fitness tests, she knew she was home and dry. A marathon runner and soccer player, she was in good physical shape and was one of a handful selected to join the programme.

Graskop base manager Sakkie van der Merwe took the young firefighter under his wing, encouraging her to aim for promotion and educating her on the finer points of fire manage-ment. “Sakkie believed in me, which gave me confidence to give Working on Fire my best shot,” she says.

Her children, Lynne (10) and Augustine (8), live with her parents at the family home in Bushbuckridge as Moagi is presently based in Nelspruit at Working on Fire’s Mpumalanga headquarters. “As a firefighter, you have to be able to give your full attention to the job at hand,” she says. “I prefer being single and knowing my children are in safe hands.”

Moagi has made it her mission to educate South Africa’s new young firefighters about fire prevention, safety and how to manage their lives. “It takes commitment, hard work and determination, but there are good opportunities.”

Additional reporting by Fiona Macleod

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