In the face of fires

2015-03-08 15:00

Brave firefighters have been battling the raging fires throughout the Cape Peninsula for more than a week now. As I write this on Friday morning, helicopters are still water-bombing affected areas.

Battling extreme heat – including the highest recorded temperatures in 100 years – and windy conditions, firefighters have had a tough, at times seemingly impossible, task.

Yet somehow, while few in number relative to the reach and spread of the fire over mountainous terrain and dense forest, they are doing a miraculous job of holding the line. Destruction – especially of human and animal life, along with property – has been minimised.

Access to social media has made it possible to spread the word about what kind of help is needed and where to share official announcements about evacuations.

Public support for the fiercely dedicated men and women of the fire department has been huge, with local residents preparing sandwiches and providing energy drinks, ice, lip balm, sunscreen and burn cream to fire bases. Supermarket chains and local restaurants have followed suit, dropping off food and drinks at local fire stations, National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) offices, Volunteer Wildfire Services bases and other ad hoc stations set up to coordinate firefighting and rescue efforts.

In some of the wealthier suburbs, residents have been asked to stop donating because fire stations and other collection points are overwhelmed. In others, residents have been asked to give only nonperishable goods, thanks to an excess of fresh food donated to feed the firefighters.

Many of the worst-hit homes are in middle class suburbs on the slopes of Cape Town’s mountains – Muizenberg, Tokai, Hout Bay and Constantia. But fire does not discriminate.

Where I live, in Hout Bay, there are regular fires in the nearby informal settlement, Imizamo Yethu, also known as Mandela Park.

Informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to fires, as people tend to use paraffin and wood for cooking and heating. Residents either don’t have electricity services or can’t afford them. And for that, they pay a hefty price – sometimes they lose their homes and their lives.

Once a fire starts in an informal settlement, it is difficult to contain because of the density of houses and the flammable nature of the building materials used. In areas where fire trucks can’t reach homes due to a lack of navigable roads, or where houses are located above a firebreak – meaning not officially safe for human habitation – the risk is even greater. City and municipal authorities will not deliver services to those seen to be living illegally in firebreak areas.

With apartheid’s forced removals policies and Group Areas Act ensuring black people lost their homes and were forced out of “prime areas” into the windy, dusty, Cape Flats where I grew up, structural and racial injustice still resonates in the stand-off between the city and informal settlement residents.

Fires happen to poor people every day. It’s not news.

While supermarket chains may place trolleys outside their stores to gather food donations from members of the public for those who have lost their homes or for the families of those who have lost lives, they do not race out to make bulk deliveries to the victims.

My neighbourhood Facebook page – largely middle class – has been exceptionally busy this past week. Everyone is on high alert. I have spent the past three mornings hosing down my thatch roof as a precautionary measure.

My home holds a particular historical and political significance – it was once a slave lodge, though we know little about who the slaves were or where they came from. As far as we know, we are the first black people to occupy this house since then.

When the fire appeared to be closing in from the west on Tuesday night, we had to think about what to take with us. Arrangements were made. Friends who were at even more risk, higher up the mountain, would evacuate down to us. If we had to evacuate, we would head to family closest to us in Newlands, which was out of the fire’s reach. Or so we thought. On Thursday, the top floor of the Great Westerford commercial building in Newlands caught alight.

Making the call about what to take was surprisingly simple: the contents of a handbag; a change of clothes; toiletries. And for a traumatised dog, a soft blanket and comfort toys. Laptops, phones and chargers would make life easier. We became unsentimental about possessions.

Then things seemed to settle. The firefighters were winning. We finally got some sleep in the early hours of Wednesday morning. But later that day, the house began to fill with smoke. The fire was now moving towards us from Constantia in the southeast. It was an angry, hot mix of red-orange. A different fire was coming from the opposite direction. We decided to hose the thatch down one last time, and prepared to leave.

Somehow, during this period, a combination of firefighters and water-bombing helicopters got the new fire under control. The thatch was wet and hope returned. Family and friends wanted to know if the rain had reached us.

But the Rain Queen, Modjadji, decided to take her time on this morning, arriving at about noon as a brief drizzle rather than a downpour.

The heavy mist moving in did not help the helicopter water-bombers, who could only work when visibility was good. Every time the mist lifted, we saw and heard them back in action.

People were posting dramatic images of the fire on Facebook, including photos of the heroes and heroines working tirelessly to stop it. The photos reveal that many, if not most, of the firefighters were black. And they’re not all men.

Enquiries into what was most needed by the firefighters revealed an interesting omission. While the fire stations, the NSRI and other emergency and rescue bases were overwhelmed by donations of food and drink, there was a shortage of clearly marked halaal food.

Many firefighters are Muslim, and food donations needed to be identified as halaal for them to eat when coming off shift. These men and women had been fighting the fires for days on end, without much sleep.

Once this was made public, Muslim-owned fish and chips shops started making deliveries and Muslim charities, well equipped for mass cooking, got the big pots going. Other locals went in search of halaal cooking ingredients.

The Cape Town I grew up in was tangibly racially divided. But in recent years, the city has become religiously divided, in part due to global news and entertainment media’s widespread branding of Muslims as terrorists and Islam as the religion of jihadists. The American TV series Homeland, whose current season was proudly filmed in Cape Town and funded in part by the public purse, comes to mind.

But here, in real-life Cape Town, Muslim women and men are putting out fires.

Cape Town’s racial polarisation is well documented. Oftentimes my neighbourhood Facebook page is a site for frightening insights into the workings of racist minds.

Black men are often identified using the shorthand lingo “Bravo” and “Charlie” – perceived as acceptable descriptors of apartheid’s labels: black and coloured. “Bravo” and “Charlie” men are most often mentioned in relation to “suspicious activity”, spotted as out of place in mostly pale, middle class neighbourhoods.

A post about a burglary or an attempted burglary might read: “Bravo or Charlie male?” Seriously.

In general, black men are represented as dangerous, violent, criminal and savage; as drug dealers or addicts.

And yet, when I look at the photos of the firefighters risking their lives so we can all be safe, I see that many of these women and men are what some on my neighbourhood list would call Bravos and Charlies.

My best hope for what this fire could do for a deeply divided Cape Town is bring people together.

In this, the firefighters have blazed the trail.

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