Risking death‚ volunteer fire fighters fly to Knysna
About 22 retired and part-time firefighters flew from Johannesburg on Friday morning to fight fires that have killed one fireman already.
More than 50 firefighters are expected to fly throughout the day to George‚ which is an hour from Knysna.
Johannesburg businessman Diederick Stopforth‚ who is organising the volunteer effort and recruiting only qualified crew‚ has been given 100 free tickets from Kulula.com.
Speaking from the airport between incessant phone calls‚ Stopforth said requests to join the volunteer effort had exceeded 200 and he had a waiting list.
Keenan Morten‚ a former fireman‚ has taken time off work.
"They need us [in Knysna]. The death toll is starting to rise. Hopefully we come back safely‚" Morten said.
"We firemen are a different breed. We run towards what everyone runs away from."
Spur restaurant has offered food vouchers to the firefighters and a woman approached Stopforth at the airport to offer accommodation in Plettenberg Bay when firemen need to rest‚ but he is still looking for more rooms for the volunteers.
The firemen will be joining disaster management teams on the ground.
"Fighting is very dangerous‚" explained retired fireman Willie Ferreira‚ who is now a pastor.
He said unbearable heat can make it hard to breathe and damage the lungs‚ despite heavy protective gear.
"People die of heat exhaustion in this job. We don’t carry water bottles with us because our hands are full of equipment."
He said every single fire was different‚ meaning it was hard to prepare until they were on the ground.
"Because of the wind changing all the time‚ you can go in and fight a fire and all of sudden it can come from behind [you].
"The next thing‚ the fire is coming at you from all sides and you can be stuck in the middle."
He said the forests in Knysna made it hard to create fire defences‚ usually done by burning grass to stop the spread of the inferno.
Even with those defences‚ flames can jump from the tree tops to new trees.
He said the wind could carry burning branches so quickly to new areas that one wouldn't even realise other fires had started until they saw smoke rising in the distance.
"You can fight for three days at a time‚" he said.
"The fire can get so huge in that area that it is three storeys high and then you can't get close enough to the fire to fight it‚ because you have to stay 30 or 40 metres away."