How firefighters are battling the Cape blaze

2015-03-05 14:33
Firefighters make their way up a hill as they battle a fire near Hout Bay. (Schalk van Zuydam, AP)

Firefighters make their way up a hill as they battle a fire near Hout Bay. (Schalk van Zuydam, AP)

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Cape Town - News24 spoke to a divisional commander in the Cape Town fire department to find out just how the city is co-ordinating the brave firefighting efforts against the devastating Cape peninsula blaze.

How does it work?

The City of Cape Town has 30 fire departments spread out across the Cape peninsula.

For these particular Cape fires, all 30 departments were specially combined to create one fluid, mobile team, headed up by five control units stationed at strategic points around the mammoth blaze.

These five units are portable, and are lead out of control vehicles which can be moved at any given notice.

Mervyn Carolissen, divisional commander at the Mitchell’s Plain fire station in the city, is head of one such unit stationed at Ou Kaapse Weg, close to the Muizenberg area, where the blaze first reared its head on Sunday morning.

According to Carolissen, each control unit shares a briefing in the early morning highlighting the objectives for the day, while also discussing the successes and failures from the previous day.

Those objectives get added to as the day goes along with data collected from 'spotter' planes.

The city has one to two spotter planes circulating the embattled areas at given times, their main task being to notice any jump in movements in the fires.

In the air, on the ground

A spotter plane will report any new developments to both the control units on the ground, as well as the four helicopters in the air tasked with water-bombing the embattled areas.

The helicopters, two of which are Hueys, while the other two are Oryx choppers, make use of any available fresh water source like dams and reservoirs, preferring fresh water to sea water, the latter being damaging to the indigenous fynbos vegetation.

Those helicopters are not owned by the city, but are rented out from private companies who specialise in battling fires across the country, and manned by specially-trained pilots.

On the ground, the divisional commander will, in turn, co-ordinate his ground troops with the data received from the spotter plane.

Professional firemen are tasked with handling the main equipment, tools and fire trucks, while volunteers are tasked with handling other issues down the "line" of the fire, which includes clearing shrub and other objects that may impede the firefighting task.

Along with the City of Cape Town fire department, the on-the-ground troops also include various volunteer groups, namely Working on Fire, the Volunteer Wildfire Services, the National Parks board and the Table Mountain Nature group.

Wind the biggest challenge

The biggest challenge facing the firefighting crews in winning the battle against any fire, but particularly the massive Cape fire, is the wind, known to change drastically in the greater Cape Town area on any given day.

 “The fire can be under control for a long period of time, and suddenly the wind drops, changes direction, and sends the line of the fire in another direction,” said Carolissen.

 “All your resources have been focussed in one particular area at that time, and now you have to move all your resources to head off the fire in its new direction.”

“The rain from yesterday [Wednesday] helped a little, but the biggest challenge is still the wind.”

The strongest wind in the Cape Town region blows in a southerly direction, and it was this wind, affectionately known as the Cape Doctor for its ability to blow polluted city air out to sea, which caused the fire to spread initially from the Muizenberg area.

Ironically, Carolissen says the rain too can be a hindrance, especially at night when it impedes visibility on very mountainous terrain, and when fires are at their least manageable.

How can citizens aid in the fight?

The city is very grateful for all the support received by the public in their attempts to battle the monstrous blaze, Carolissen said.

The rise in volunteers too, who are unpaid, has also been welcome, with much of the donations received going to support those volunteer firefighters who gave up their time and safety.

“The department gets a great kick from all the well wishes, thank yous and donations,” he said.

“They make the job very worthwhile.”

He did, however, add a caveat; that the public steer clear of hotspot areas, as crowds can impede firefighters from doing their job effectively.

If citizens are interested in getting involved as a volunteer, they can visit the Volunteer Wildfire Services in Newlands, Cape Town to learn of other ways in which people without experience can help.

More than anything, firefighting is a profession that requires rigorous training, and the nature of the job leaves the department asking the public to let the professionals handle the fires, Carolissen added.

If you would like to donate to the brave efforts of these firefighters, or learn how you can help, you can visit www.vws.org.za, or drop off donations to the nearest fire department.

Read more on:    cape town  |  fires

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