Cape Town: Heroes amid the ashes

2015-03-08 15:00

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Commander Frank Forbay could feel the skin melting off his hands as he was engulfed by flames in the Table Mountain National Park on Monday.

The 47-year-old fireman from Plumstead was fighting the inferno blazing its way through the Tintswalo Atlantic Lodge at the foot of Chapman’s Peak when he was burnt.

Speaking to City Press from his bed in the Vincent Pallotti Hospital on Friday, Forbay described how “a ball of fire” swallowed him when gas exploded inside the lodge’s kitchen. On fire, he leapt into a Jacuzzi, which probably saved his life.

“I took off my gloves to adjust the fire hose just when the explosion happened – so that’s why my hands got burnt. My face was covered, but it was hurt by the hot air, which hit me like a wall.

“Going into that situation again, I could do nothing differently – we were as cautious as we could be,” he said.

In his 22 years on the beat, this was the first time Forbay – divisional commander of the Kuils River, Belhar and Mfuleni fire stations on the Cape Flats – had been injured in the line of duty.

From his hospital bed, he recounted how becoming a firefighter was his dream as a child, and how he returned to school to get his matric at age 23 to fulfil this dream.

Forbay was part of a small army of people – volunteers and professionals – who stepped into the fiery fray to save Cape Town. While experts agree that fires every 15 years are critical to the rebirth of fynbos-dominated ecosystems, this week’s devastation of one of the world’s favourite destination cities made international headlines.

The fire started in the tinder-dry hills near Muizenberg last Sunday and was soon wind-whipped into the surrounding mountains.

Over the next few days, it reduced thousands of hectares of fynbos to ashes, leaving charred tortoises and seared snakes in its wake. On Tuesday, a 45m-high blaze leapt into the sky, ripping through the Tokai Forest and searing the perimeters of suburbs including Clovelly, Noordhoek and Constantia.

People grabbed pets and passports and fled their homes. Sunrise on Wednesday offered a surreal sight: Noordhoek music teacher Ann Middleton sat in a field playing her piano against a canvas of sparks and smoke. After authorities ordered her to evacuate her house during the night, she fled – her piano and dog in tow.

At least 14 homes were damaged by walls of scorching flame, against which the silhouettes of firefighters and military choppers carrying huge amounts of water looked like tiny toys.

News photographers sneaked past guards on to the burning mountains and snapped away. Their lenses captured the devastation and the herculean efforts by the firefighters, who were working up to 30-hour shifts. Park rangers, wildlife-service employees and firefighters were drenched in sweat and tears as they fought to divert flames from populated areas, including the densely inhabited townships of Red Hill and Imizamo Yethu.

The photographs, posted online, soon went viral and elicited a frenzy of public support. Donations poured in: R3?million in cash, along with medicine and meals – including halaal food for Muslim firefighters – KFC snack packs and boxed seafood from Ocean Basket.

As interest in the fire increased, the men and women at the coalface were applauded for their courage. Cars stopped and people clapped as fire trucks crisscrossed the Mother City. Some of the firefighters and volunteers smiled back.

Even Cape Town’s trendiest confectionary, Charly’s Bakery, bounded on to the bandwagon, donating scores of chocolate cupcakes bearing encouraging messages in bright icing: “Everyday Heroes”, “Volunteers Rock” and “Bring on the Rain”.

On Twitter and Facebook, the #CapeFire hashtag spread as supporters from around the world held their breath in different time zones, praying for rain or willing it to come.

Cooling showers finally bathed the scorched earth on Wednesday morning, sending a collective sigh through the city. It was arguably the most celebrated cloudburst the Cape Peninsula has seen in years.

The life-restoring rain quenched the worst of the blaze. By the end of the week, the fire had been largely contained. Emergency vehicles wailed through the post-apocalyptic wasteland to attend to small flare-ups.

On Thursday, Nonhlanhla Mboyi from the Milnerton Fire Station told City Press she was exhausted but proud. Sitting sprawled against a wall in her overalls in the seaside suburb of Clovelly, she stared up at the smoking mountain.

“Yes, we are the heroes,” she said. “We are doing our job properly. It is dangerous work, but we were trained and have the skills to deal with these situations.”

She took a sip of water. Around us, the air was thick with the reek of burnt timber.

A group of volunteers rest for a few minutes during a week that was punishingly long and tiring

Across the mountain, 26 men who had been trucked in to help from the Kruisfontein plantation in Knysna were hosing down smouldering logs in Tokai Forest, which was covered in fine ash that puffed around their feet. Dawid Robertse explained that tree roots still simmering underground posed a big problem.

We could feel the heat of fires underfoot through our boots.

It was quiet in the forest, but for the buzz of generators on a fire truck parked in a lane at the edge of the pine trees. A car bounced over the rutted track, pulled up and two men came running with parcels of food, cooldrinks and lip balm. It was a godsend for the workers, with their teary eyes and cracked lips.

The supplies were being distributed from a tented station just down the road. Operated by folk who ditched work to support the firefighters, the station had all manner of food, a doctor on stand-by, pharmaceuticals – from eyedrops to throat lozenges and bandages – as well as mattresses and masseuses.

Further afield, a station commander from Wynberg, who did not want to be named, told City Press he’d seen some scorchers in his 33 years on the job, but nothing like this.

“It’s been hectic?...?so hectic. What really got us through was support from the communities. I mean, people stopping their cars and getting out to clap hands and say thank you when we passed.” That, said the publicity-shy commander, gave them the courage to carry on.

City officials dismissed criticism that more resources were spent to fight the fire this week – which largely affected middle class suburbs – than those that regularly razed local townships.

“We spend almost our entire disaster relief budget on informal settlements to assist victims of fire and flooding,” said the city council’s JP Smith.

On Friday, Forbay was discharged from hospital into the care of his wife and two children. His hands were heavily bandaged, but his spirits were high.

Forbay was booked off work for a month, but the firefighter who has come to personify the heroes who took the heat to save their city is itching to get back into the “firing line”.

For once, it seemed the often racially divided city of Cape Town stood united in its fight against the terrifying elements – and in gratitude and hero-worship.

Nazeem Davies (25) died when the truck he was in – heading back from a firefight 120km from Cape Town – overturned

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