The beast’s belly

It’s been an arduous week for firefighters battling the infernos that have caused 32 deaths and ravaged KwaZulu-Natal since last Thursday.

Shifts have been as long as 18 hours, with firefighters even sleeping in nature’s charred remains before waking up to battle on.

Winds of up to 90km/hour have been reported in some areas, making conditions treacherous. In just the last week 36 fires have raged out of control through the province.

Smoke inhalation and burns are common dangers and even the rush of adrenaline can sometimes be matched by fear: ”On Sunday I was scared, for sure. The smoke and fire was so bad I couldn’t see the person in front of me,” says Philani Memela, leader of the 12-person ”heli-attack crew” based at Shafton Airstrip near Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Memela’s crew, one of two operating in the province, was deployed to the hardest to reach places during runaway fires, especially mountain slopes and terrain inaccessible by road. Usually they find themselves in the belly of hell.

”We’ve been working day and night and it’s been quite intense. The wind was changing direction each and every second and it’s hardest on slopes that you don’t know that well. But you have to fight a fire aggressively,” says crew member Berthwell Madonsela (25).

Since last week his crew has been working ”night and day”, says Memela, fighting wild forest fires in the Underberg and Dargle areas, and two separate bush and plantation fires in the Lion’s River area – all in the Midlands.

With the blazes stabilised by Tuesday — although the province remains on high alert — authorities are assessing the full extent of the damage caused by the fires, which have raged as far as the Mozambique border to the north and through almost all of the KwaZulu-Natal hinterland. Early estimates are that the cost of the damage could be as high as R2-billion. Latest figures put the death toll at 32, with more than 1 000 people displaced.

Simon Thomas, operations manager at the KwaZulu-Natal Fire Protection Association, says there have been 71 fires so far during the province’s fire season, which runs from June to October. But in the past week alone there have been 36 fires in KwaZulu-Natal, all exacerbated by the dry winter climate and gale-force spring winds.

Thomas confirmed that about 1 700 hectares of forestry land were destroyed in the Midlands and another 5 000 in the Zululand interior around Melmoth and Nkandla in the north.

KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) president Robin Barnsley estimated damage in this area to amount to about R263-million.

Traditionally, dealing with runaway fires has fallen to local landowners. The deployment of professional firefighters such as Memela and his crew marks a significant departure.

The heli-attack crew is among more than 1 500 firefighters in the country who have been trained by the Working on Fire (WOF) programme.

Under the department of water affairs and forestry and part of government’s expanded public works programme, WOF has drawn on a relationship with United States government departments, such as the US Forest Service, to build fire-fighting skills among the unemployed, while implementing an integrated response to runaway-fire-fighting in the country — the Incident Command System.

In the past week in KwaZulu-Natal 15 WOF teams of 25 members each have been at the frontline, beating back the flames with rake-hoes, fire-beaters and knapsack-tanks of water.

Heli crews such as Memela’s are dropped off with military precision before the pilot flies off to collect water before ”bombing” the areas where the crew is working. Fixed-wing planes such as Thrushes aid in the ”water-bombing”, while Cessnas are used as spotters, coordinating the fire fighting by monitoring weather conditions and fire movement.

Zanele Nxumalo, WOF KwaZulu-Natal media and community liaison officer, says recruits — usually drawn from the areas scattered around the province because they know the terrain better — undergo a 21-day boot camp with rigorous physical tests and endurance training, advanced fire-fighter skills and first aid classes before graduating as firefighters. When not on high alert during the fire season, the full-time staff (who receive only R56 a day) conduct fire awareness and prevention classes at local schools.

Nxumalo says the project has been successful in creating jobs. She also boasts about the fact that 30% of the WOF firefighters in KwaZulu-Natal are women.

One of these is 21-year-old Zinhle Myendi, the only woman on the heli attack team: ”When I’m in the fire, I’m not scared. I’m more concerned about what is being destroyed and how I can save the environment and people’s lives,” she says.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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