While some people volunteer their time to assist in community projects, animal rescues, clean-up initiatives and outreach programmes in an attempt to “give something back”, a handful of Cape residents are doing something completely different – they fight fires.
Text and photography: Leilani Basson
The Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) is a non-profit organisation of about 150 members who volunteer to fight fires and preserve the beauty that makes the Cape Town region one of the most popular tourism destinations in the world.
They have two bases – one in Newlands that has been there for 12 years and the other established three years ago at Jonkershoek, near Stellenbosch.
The members come from all walks of life and have “normal, other lives”. They are young and old, Afrikaans and English, self-employed or company employees, students and wannabe action heroes. But when the call-out comes, they work together like a well-oiled machine.
There are monthly training sessions to streamline this seamless interaction. They must be attended, and include day and night time sessions, as well as hikes.
Fitness is of the utmost importance when fighting fires – especially wild fires. Training consists of skills’ evaluation, real life situations and night hikes. Members have to pass tests in tying knots, GPS navigation, communication and operating pumps and hoses. First aid training is paramount and takes place throughout the year.
Members are divided into either NR (new recruits) or active members. The latter wear yellow shirts and have to re-qualify every year.
Scenario sessions are made up of teams comprising five or six members. Each team consists of a CL (crew leader), ACL (assistant crew leader) and four or five members.
Training starts with a 45-minute hike and is followed by team sessions that entail the use of pumps and hoses. Teams are given the task of rolling out hoses and filling buckets with water strategically placed somewhere on the mountain – as well as practical activities such as knot-tying and abseiling.
These sessions are sometimes doubled up with first-aid training, which are mainly refresher courses, since most members have completed a level 3 first aid course.
The last activity of the training day is GPS and map work.
Fire season officially starts on 1November, when the dry weather begins, although members are on full alert throughout the winter months. During “fire season”, the teams do stand-by sessions. These take place every Saturday and Sunday, from 13:00 to 18:00, and serve to shorten the time it takes to raise a team when a fire breaks out.
Whether fires last for a couple of hours, throughout the night or even for several days, the volunteers will be there to help the professional fire fighters.
- To become a volunteer fire fighter or to get involved by helping the VWS to buy gear, fuel and other resources, log on to www.capefires.com.