Too hot to handle

The Rheenendal road, outside Knysna, looked like hell. Telephone poles and huge trees lay felled. Hot spots smoked lazily under smoggy skies. In one place, the only greenery visible for miles was a patch of water lilies on a reservoir that escaped the fire-fighting helicopters. Smoke lay heavy in the distant valleys.

Amid one of the worst droughts in memory, the Garden Route was ablaze two weeks ago. Temperatures were high enough to drop ostriches in their tracks, and fires raged across 6 000ha of the Eden Municipal District: near Plettenberg Bay, in the Fisantehoek forest, around Stilbaai and in the forests north-west of Knysna around Phantom Pass, Rheenendal and Homtini.

Deep in the burnt-out forests of Phantom Pass, the yellow truck of a Working On Fire crew is watching for flare-ups. A grizzled, one-armed fireman called Bandit Steyn is talking to team leader Felix Zulu.

The big fires are now mostly under control –light rain is predicted, notes Steyn, looking heaven­ward. But he knows that in the last quarter of last year the region received just 117mm of rain — less than Gauteng recently had in 24 hours.

Zulu is one of 59 people trucked in from Kwazulu-Natal to help the 177 firemen on the scene. Supported by the Expanded Public Works Programme, Working On Fire comprises formerly unemployed people, trained and equipped after disastrous fires in Mpumalanga in 2003 destroyed property worth R100-million. It now has 52 teams nationwide, some deployed elsewhere along the Garden Route.

“The pay’s low and the work’s hard,” says Steyn.

“It’s five days a week as a rule, and seven days a week in the fire season. Fitness and discipline are key. But some guys are now in management positions or have found formal employment, so this training is working well.”

Zulu scans the forest floor as he describes the previous day, when temperatures reached 36°C in the shade and he worked a seven-hour shift. Suddenly, he points and runs to a smouldering hot spot.

“The danger,” says Steyn, “is the ground fires. Depending on the forest floor — pine is the worst — they can smoulder below the surface for a week. Over here, Scottish bracken is the bitch. It protects the ground fire under its canopy and when the wind takes it, it can start a fire two, three kilometres away.”

Six helicopters are available to the George-based disaster management headquarters.

A Huey based on Nico Heyns’s nearby farm, under contract to the municipality, is a familiar sight in Knysna, while two large Oryx workhorses have been brought in from the air force at R40 000 an hour.

Compounding the crisis is the southern Cape’s acute water shortage. Though they prefer not to use salt water, the helicopters usually fill their 6 000-litre scoops from the lagoon. Near Rheenendal, many farm dams and reservoirs have been raided and stand empty, in silent capitulation to fire and drought.

According to Knysna municipal manager Johnny Douglas, drought and inaccessible terrain are forcing a return to more traditional fire-fighting techniques: bulldozing, beating and raking, with helicopters only protecting properties.

Smaller fires kept breaking out elsewhere.

One threatened Knysna’s small industrial area, diverting Heyns for an afternoon; another sparked consternation in Brenton-On-Lake, on Knysna’s famed West Head, where much of the fynbos was razed in December. Arson is suspected in several cases.

“At about 9pm on Saturday night [February 6], there were two fires to the north and one to the south,” says Ron Kloeckner, the 60-something chairperson of the homeowners’ association at Phantom River View, a pretty group of log cabins nestled in the forest. “We were told to pack our car to evacuate,” he says, pointing to the suitcases and filing boxes everywhere, “but we didn’t leave. We stayed to help organise the defences.

“Our neighbour has an access road, where we created a line, and the firefighters all along it were catching embers. It was only this morning, when we saw the cloudy weather, that we realised we were out of danger.”

Kloeckner adds: “The guy who drove the helicopter, Nick [Heyns], worked day and night. Pinpoint accuracy. Brilliant job, he and the army guys and that little yellow spotter plane.”

Back on the road, a fire crew of six men and two women prepares to head back into the forest, looking for hot spots, dragging hoses from the tankers.

While waiting for a tanker to fill, they stop for lunch: a fireman’s axe splits a watermelon; cans of meatballs and viennas are opened with a pocket knife.

Then they “walk the line”, bundu-bashing down the steep slope, forest to the right, hell to the left. Making the line safe means painstakingly putting out hotspots that threaten adjoining forest.

“You use your hands,” a man named David explains.

“You can’t wear gloves, because you can’t feel it burn.” One man has burns up to his elbows.

“We’d love infrared sensors, so we can see how hot the hot spots are,” David muses, scooping out a safe-zone around a smouldering stump using his bare hands.

The radio crackles. It’s Eden’s ­deputy fire chief, Deon van Wyk, who’s on his way back with sandwiches. We meet him deep in a forest valley at a wide firebreak.

The team, supported by Steyn’s crew from Working On Fire, is ready to burn out a block that connects a dangerously hot zone with unburnt forest that stretches to thatched homes on the ridge.

Van Wyk deploys his beaters with military precision and lights his ­diesel burner.

As the flames take hold in the brush at the top of a steep slope, he checks the smoke to confirm that the wind is against the direction of the burn, and that the light breeze on the ground isn’t dangerously strong above the treetops.

Slowly, his team builds the fire, everyone keeping an eye on the flames, the wind and the crew’s safety.

Burton van Wyk is sent in behind the main fire, which licks several metres into the canopy in places. His job is to extend the fire down the hill, drawing it in the direction the chief has ordered. Occasionally, his dark, sweaty face emerges from the bush, silent and focused.

“You know he’s getting hot when he gets quiet,” the chief says.

“Shouldn’t we pull him out?” asks a fireman.

“Nah, Burtie is a kanniedood,” he replies, referring to a Karoo aloe the name of which means “cannot die”.

It is grim, dangerous work.

When I tell David that nobody died and all property was saved, he grins proudly: “That’s good news.”

“No, that means it isn’t news at all.”

His ash-smeared face drops, and he glances at his exhausted crew. “Ja, well, they don’t know, do they?”

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