Winter is fire season

2008-06-20 00:00

As winter draws on and the Msunduzi Fire, Rescue and Disaster Management services gear up for the grass fire season, there is some good news for Msunduzi residents who may recall the devastating fires of June last year. “Although we still need more staff, for the first time, perhaps in the history of the services, we will have a full complement of firefighters this season. All our vacant, unfunded posts will have been filled by the end of July,” said Billy Paton, the chief fire officer, officially called the manager: Fire, Rescue and Disaster Management.

The department has 120 firefighters, including 12 women, who are trained to respond to all types of fires, emergencies and hazardous material incidents such as chemical spills. A new intake of 32 firefighters will have received only basic training by the end of July, which is well into the fire season, “but they will definitely be an asset”, Paton said.

He reports more good news when he speaks about the department’s vehicles and equipment. “All our equipment is highly specialised and is mostly imported, so it is very expensive. We use all-purpose fire and rescue vehicles that can respond to fires, emergencies and hazardous material incidents. Although some of our equipment is old and obsolete, the council has taken our needs seriously and the municipal manager has approved a vehicle replacement programme for our front-line vehicles. We are currently in a tender process to procure two more engines at a cost of R4 million. In the next five years we will have replaced all our vehicles.”

Firefighters work 12-hour shifts for four days followed by four days off, making a total of about 16 days of duties a month.

Because of the stressful nature of their work, trauma debriefing is available to them. Essack Khan, senior divisional officer in charge of operations and Grant van der Byl, station officer: operations, agree that the high points and low points of their specialised and stressful work are different sides of the same coin. “If our intervention is successful and we are able to help people in distress, it is very satisfying. It makes the danger and difficulty worthwhile. At the same time, we witness many traumatic incidents and sometimes people die. Those are the low points, especially when children are involved.”

Paton explains that the grass-fire season covers the period from April to September, peaking in July, the dry month, and August, usually the windiest month. “By August most of the grassland areas have burnt, but then the winds pick up and can fan fires into other areas like the timber plantations. In the dry season last year we took an average of about 250 calls a month, about 1 500 in total, mostly to grass fires.”

He explains that call outs to grass fires follow a particular pattern: “We start getting busy with calls from about 11 am onwards. We are very busy from about 2 pm until 4 pm, which is when school children are on their way home. We know from tracking the fires we attend that the major causes of grass fires are smokers throwing away lit cigarettes or matches, often along the highway, or school children either smoking or playing with matches.”

Paton offers advice to the public on how to prevent grass fires this winter.

• Drivers should not throw cigarette butts or matches out of vehicle windows, especially on the highways.

• Parents should teach their children about the danger of playing with matches and cigarettes.

• Pupils should report incidents of other pupils playing with fire to their parents or the school authorities.

He also advises motorists not to drive through heavy smoke on the highway: “Smoke on the road impairs visibility. Many accidents on the highway during the fire season are caused by drivers driving into smoke and hitting vehicles they cannot see. People are sometimes killed in this way.” Paton advises drivers to pull over to the side of the highway, put on their hazard lights and call the emergency services immediately. He advises motorists to make sure they have the number of the Msunduzi Fire, Rescue and Disaster Management services programmed into their cellphones.

Paton also has fire prevention advice for farmers and foresters: “They should comply with the legislated burn season requirements, which don’t permit burning during a certain period of the dry season. They should ensure they have adequate firebreaks around their properties to prevent the spread of veld fires and the should not allow piles of rubbish to accumulate. They should also have an adequate firefighting system in place so that they can deal with outbreaks of fire on their property."

He recommends that landowners be members of a fire protection association or form one to protect their land, staff, property and livestock. “Areas where these associations exist are better able to respond to fires than those that don’t have one. We are happy to help landowners form fire protection associations, in consultation with the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, which is the custodian of the relevant legislation.”

Fire prevention advice for homeowners

• Clear a firebreak around your property and remove any alien vegetation.

• Do not burn garden waste or other rubbish illegally.

• Put out braai fires properly.

• Never leave heating or cooking devices unsupervised.

• Never leave a burning candle unattended.

• Never place a burning candle near something that can catch fire.

• Keep burning candles out of the reach of children and pets.

• Safely dispose of burning cigarettes or matches.

• Do not make, or use, illegal electrical connections.

• Switch off non-essential electrical appliances at the wall socket.

• Make sure all appliances are switched off before a load-shedding period starts.

In case of an emergency

Billy Paton, Msunduzi Municipality’s Manager: Fire, Rescue and Disaster Management, recommends that local residents programme this emergency number into their cellphones Msunduzi Municipality Fire, Rescue and Disaster Management — 0800 033 911.

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