Firefighters grounded in risky season

Earlier this year, two incidents in the Cape saw three Working on Fire crew members die when their helicopters crashed. (Matthew Buckland, M&G)

Earlier this year, two incidents in the Cape saw three Working on Fire crew members die when their helicopters crashed. (Matthew Buckland, M&G)

Six weeks ago, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) suspended helicopter and small aircraft operating licences for the government-funded job creation programme, Working on Fire, for failure to comply with legal requirements for holders of an air operator certificate.

Working on Fire is an expanded public works initiative employing more than 5 000 firefighters. Trading as Forest Fires Association (FFA) Aviation, it is also known as Kishugu and operates 47 aircraft and supplies more than 95% of South Africa’s firefighting aircraft.

August winds bring increased fire danger to Mpumalanga, where the forestry sector is crucial for the province’s economy. A runaway fire can, and has, destroyed millions of rands’ worth of timber in minutes.

The aviation authority said the licence suspension followed a spate of incidents and accidents involving aircraft operated by FFA Aviation, which prompted it to intensify its oversight and audit obligations.

Earlier this year, two incidents in the Cape saw three Working on Fire crew members die when their helicopters crashed.

In a July 16 statement announcing the suspensions, the aviation authority said: “Recent surveillance conducted on FFA Aviation yielded various findings, which according to Sacaa were serious … a certificate holder has a duty to ensure the organisation operates safely and its aircraft are properly maintained in line with the manufacturer’s manual and applicable regulatory prescripts”.

Naranda Leeuwner, Kishugu’s spokesperson, said its ground-based firefighting teams are not affected by the suspension and are operational.
“We have subcontracted additional aerial resources. We have two subcontracted spotter aircraft and three subcontracted helicopters on duty. Our fixed-wing aircraft are operational on another AOC [air operator certificate].”

Sappi, the world’s largest manufacturer of dissolving wood pulp, procures aerial firefighting resources through local fire protection agencies. During fire season, any failure or incapacity of resources remains a concern for fire protection associations, and for Sappi and the forestry industry, said Duane Roothman, general manager for Sappi Forests Mpumalanga. He added that private land owners spend about R2-billion on proactive fire management.

Sappi in Mpumalanga alone has deployed more than 750 firefighters. “It is essential we remain self-reliant in managing our fire risk. Similarly for the other corporate timber growers. Working on Fire resources are seen as supplementary and focused on managing the risk in neighbouring communities,” Roothman said.

Over the past five years, there has also been a consideration of fire protection associations in Mpumalanga to procure resources and services from various operators to limit the risk of exposure to a total failure of a supplier to deliver resources, he said.

In the Lowveld and Escarpment Fire Protection Association July newsletter, its manager Andre Scheepers said that as of August 1 plans were in place to use alternative aerial support during the fire season and an additional 10 firefighting teams were sent from the Cape and North West provinces to assist the Lowveld teams, because of the “dangerous nature of the area’s fire risk”.

Leeuwner said Kishugu is undergoing a five-phase re-evaluation process of its certificate by the authority. “Sacaa is doing its utmost best to expedite the process but it still remains a time-consuming task.”

Sacaa spokesperson Phindiwe Gwebu said Working on Fire had given its full co-operation and has shown commitment to rectifying all the concerns raised by the authority.

“Sacaa will continue to provide the necessary guidance to the operator until such time [as] the regulator is satisfied that safety is no longer adversely affected,” she said.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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