Western Cape fires starting pistol on a blazing summer

28 November 2018 - 12:15 By Dave Chambers
Homes in Knysna destroyed by the 2017 wildfire.
Homes in Knysna destroyed by the 2017 wildfire.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

The Garden Route didn’t get the memo, but the Western Cape’s wildfire season officially starts on Saturday.

Preparations for what have frequently been five months of summer mayhem are under way at the Wildfire Ready Convention, being held this week at Lourensford in Somerset West.

The City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service has signed up 114 seasonal firefighters who start work this weekend.

In the 2017/18 financial year, 10,129 vegetation fires made up just over two-thirds of all fires recorded in Cape Town, said JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security.

“The bulk of these incidents occur during a four or five-month window, which is why we need extra resources like the seasonal firefighters,” he said.

The addition of the seasonal firefighters, who had to complete physical and academic assessments before starting training this month, boosts the strength of the fire service by about 13%.

“While there are on average just over 200 firefighters on duty at the 30 fire stations around the metropole at any given time, the city has more than 900 professional firefighters who can be called on in the event of a major incident,” said Smith.

“It also has working relationships with a number of other agencies, including Table Mountain National Park, the Volunteer Wildfire Service and surrounding municipalities.”

One of the key tasks assigned to seasonal firefighters involves creating fire breaks along the urban edge.

In late October and early November fires throughout the Garden Route claimed nine lives, forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and destroyed vegetation on 90,000ha.

Just over 200 delegates attended the official opening of the Western Cape wildfire season at Lourensford, hosted by the Western Cape Umbrella Fire Protection Association.

Anton Bredell, the MEC of local government, environmental affairs and development planning, told them: “Every year the fire season seems to be getting worse. Conditions across the province are hazardous following the devastating three-year drought that has seen lots of brush and veld die. If the veld catches alight and the wind takes the flames, the results can be devastating.

“We have access to eight helicopters, four water bombers and eight spotter command and control aircraft that can be deployed to incidents across the province. There are 36 runways available and prepared for these aircraft to utilize in case of need.

“These aerial resources will be complemented by 1,550 municipal firefighters across the province, bolstered by approximately 1,020 seasonal firefighters. There are also 27 Working on Fire teams with about 700 firefighters in the Western Cape, and an additional 500 firefighters in other provinces who can be called upon if required.”