Working on Fire: the firefighters that won’t quit

The Mail & Guardian visited one of these teams while they took a short rest from constantly fighting the fires sweeping across the Western Cape. There it is fire season and for them these days are rare.

The programme, a child of the department of environmental affairs and sister to Working for Water, is a huge job creation one. Over 5 000 firefighters are split into teams across the entire country. Mainly based on national game reserves, their task in the wet season is to create firebreaks and make it hard for fires to spread in the dry season. When the rain stops they have to go to the source of fires and stamp them out.

Based just outside the small wine town of Robertson, the Robi Hotshots are amongst the best in the business. They are the elite team that gets to face the meanest fires. And even on their day off they are drilling, not minding the 32-degree heat when a fire can push temperatures into triple figures.

Gathered in their dorm, a long room with chipped white paint and rusting bunk beds, they are shy to talk about their jobs. Like a class of schoolchildren, none of them want to be the first to speak. At first there is nervous laughter as they talk about what they are doing there – there is an even split in the 25-member team between those looking for work and those there for the adventure. But then the conversation turns to a fire tornado that hit the area the other week. Things turn sombre.

"I went to the hospital and the teams there were crying. They had the experience of death, with some of them saying they closed their eyes and felt their way out of the fire," says Albert Snyman, the leader of a few teams in the area.

"It was a fire demon that came that day," he says. The room is full of nodding heads but most do not want to talk about the fire.   

"You don't tell people about these experiences, you can't even talk about it. But it does something to you, going to these fires and sitting in the back of the truck, knowing you could die," he says.

'I could feel death'
Speaking in Afrikaans, most of them are quick to describe the fire – how a sudden gust of wind fed a dying fire.

Alec Slingers, nicknamed "grandfather" after his years of experience, remembers everyone jumping on the team's bakkie as it tried to drive through the fire to get people out. "People were jumping on the bonnet, holding onto anything. We just wanted to get out … I could feel death," he says while his eyes bore into the wall opposite his bunk.

Others jumped into a dam to try and escape the fire. But the trees around it caught fire and a wall of flame swept over the dam, forcing them to stay underwater. Swimming is an essential component of training because this scenario often plays out.

While some have quit Working on Fire after big blazes, or their first fire, the group's current members are the exception to the rule. The rest of the team insists that together they will be able to get through anything.

Impeccably dressed in his yellow Working on Fire shirt, blue pants and polished boots, Patrick Roos is also a leader of a team – each group is divided down so one person can be in complete charge of a few people and make sure they are safe.

The joker of the team, he gets serious when he talks about his responsibility. "I am the boss. If the road isn't good enough I must be the first one to take it. I have to know that my team will be alright," he says

'The tears were flowing'
It is a responsibility that left him with burnt feet recently. "I was walking through a supposedly safe zone, where the fire had burnt out. But the sand was soft and I quickly sank down to near my knees," he says.

Grabbing a smoldering tree branch, he pulled himself out. The hot sand had managed to burn the edge of both his feet, even though he had a thick pair of leather boots on. "The tears were coming, but I said I can't cry in front of my team. So I held it in until I was on the truck, then I broke down. I just don't want to experience that again," he says.

Christalene Da Kella, a communications officer at Working on Fire, says counselling is an essential part of the programme because of the trauma that facing a fire can bring to people.

Her own background is in fire fighting. Her father suffered serious burns while fighting a blaze but this never stopped her. Coming from a small community joining the local Working on Fire team was a chance to earn a living and get skills while staying close to home.

Her skill saw her promoted and moving further from home, which only increased her parents' anxiety, she explains. They would phone her before and after every fire.

Given her background each team is now a personal responsibility for her and she is constantly asking the fighters if their equipment works and what could be changed.

Tiring work
For the most part the equipment is simple and traditional – heavy protective clothing with fire beaters and slashers. These teams are then backed up by helicopters and aeroplanes that drop water to aid in the teams' work. But the heavy work is still left to the teams.

"You often have to go high into the mountains to fight a fire. For this you could walk more than four kilometres there with all your equipment before you even start fighting. You must imagine how heavy and tiring it is," she says.

To keep them going they get a sack of water each and a ration pack with juice, bully beef, chocolate and fruit. "I always ate my chocolate before we even left, and when we were at the fire I would trade the guys some beef for more chocolate," she says.

While most operations happen during the day, the teams are sometimes stuck on mountains when the sun sets. Then they fall asleep wherever they can, for a couple of hours before they go back to fighting the fire. And on a serious fire this can mean 48-hours of short sleeps and constant fighting.

In the best of conditions, this is a relatively safe job. Before each operation, a safe zone and an escape route are established before any team goes into the fight. The team then fights under the direct supervision of their leader. "In many fires there is so much smoke and noise that you cannot hear your team and you lose track of what is happening," says Da Kella.

With the unpredictability of fires people often find themselves trapped as a fire surrounds them. Their uniforms can handle this for a short time, and in training they practice running through a fire.

"It isn't for everyone. Running into a fire when everyone else is running the other way takes a special person," she says.

Difficult training
To join the ranks fitness is key. A matric qualification is not a necessity but being able to do 40-sit ups, 40 push-ups and run 2.4km in 12 minutes is. They then need to pass a health test – people with asthma cannot fight fires.

Alistaire Joseph shakes his head when asked how hard training is. "You just keep asking the guy next to you how long it will be but you have to keep going. It gives you a long time to think," he says.

Sitting next to him on a mattress, Webster Pieterse has to live with the nickname "Michael Jackson" because he was shivering so much after doing the basic entrance requirements.

Like many of the other team members, the opportunity to get a job attracted him to Working on Fires. At just over R70 a day it is not much, but it is a lot for someone who did not matriculate. When the programme started, the pay was only R35 a day.

Da Kella says most of her money went straight to her mother when she started working, "There was only a small amount left over but when you are young it is a lot."

To supplement the pay, the programme has a heavy emphasis on training and extra skills. Snyman says, "This programme opened so many doors, all you have to do is walk through them."

A former cook at Spur, he has used the Working on Fire programme to change his fortunes. De Kella has done the same and both of them say people should use working there as a steppingstone to a better job.

De Kella is trying to start a programme so people can get their matric while working. "You can't do anything with a matric but here you can get the experience that can get you a job," she says.

The advancement and potential breeds heavy competition between the 200 Working on Fire teams around the country and when they meet each year this plays itself out in singing, dancing and fitness competitions.

The Robi Hotshots agree that the Western Cape produces the friendliest teams, the Eastern Cape the best singers, and Mpumalanga the strongest and fittest teams. "It's the pap they eat," chuckles Grandfather Slingers.  

And with teams coming from around the country to reinforce the local ones during the fire season, Da Kella says providing the right food is complicated, "We eventually decided to just let each team send its own cook to find their ingredients because they all want different food."

For now these teams are stood down, only going out to make sure fires do not flare up. Da Kella checks her phone every few minutes as she gets sms notifications of every fire in the province and how it is being dealt with. In most cases local fire departments are handling the small fires in their areas and with little happening the Hotshots get one more day to sleep properly and rest. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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