UCT inferno: 'When we arrived there, the fire was going crazy' - firefighter

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  • A Cape Town firefighter has described scenes at the recent runaway fires along Table Mountain as "devastating".
  • The inferno spread to the University of Cape Town, threatened neighbourhoods, destroyed buildings and monuments, and spread over Devil’s Peak.
  • The City of Cape Town's operational staff is made up of 714 firefighters, and 150 platoon and station commanders.

Firefighter Nathan Phillips was at work, stationed in Epping, when the call came in on Sunday to fight the fire in Cape Town, GroundUp reported.

Phillips said:

I was on a shift on Sunday and I could see the smoke coming from the mountain. Immediately, I prepared myself mentally because I knew for a fact that is where we were going to end up, on the mountain.

"The scene was devastating. We were dispatched to the offices of a University of Cape Town residence on Sunday. When we arrived there, the fire was going crazy; it was spreading rapidly."

Phillips said they went inside the burning building, hoses in hand and dressed in protective gear.

"I cannot exactly say how long it took to put the fire out because I don’t keep track of the time, but it was a while," he said.

Firefighter Nathan Phillips from Epping
Nathan Phillips from Epping has been a firefighter for 13 years and helped fight the blaze that hit Cape Town recently.
GroundUp PHOTO: Mary-Anne Gontsana/GroundUp

Phillips has been a firefighter for 13 years. But the job never gets easy, he says.

With a four-month-old baby at home, there is always anxiety and worry, for him and his family, when he heads out to help extinguish veld fires.

"I have always wanted to be a firefighter since I was young, and it also played to my love of helping people who are in need. I come from a gangster and drug-ridden area in Epping, and I had always believed that one day I would help my community in some way or another."

Rotating 24-hour shifts

The fire on Table Mountain on Sunday spread to the University of Cape Town, threatened neighbourhoods, destroyed buildings and monuments, and spread over Devil’s Peak.

Employed by the City of Cape Town and working 24-hour shifts, Phillips works from 09:00 to 09:00. Firefighters are rotated during the 24 hours and get time to rest while another group of firefighters is dispatched.

According to City spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo, the current operational staff consists of 714 firefighters. This includes seasonal firefighters, learner firefighters, firefighters and senior firefighters. There are also platoon commanders and station commanders, who total 150.

The different ranks of firefighters have different pay scales and their basic rates, excluding benefits and allowances, range between R52.28 and R152.96 an hour, depending on rank and seniority.

Firefighters leave an area with aggressive flames
Firefighters leave an area where the flames become too aggressive.
AFP PHOTO: Rodger Bosch/AFP

"During the week, they have two days off. Weekends, they have 24 hours off after every shift, which allows each platoon to have a four day, Monday to Friday, long weekend every three weeks," said Tyhalibongo.

Another programme in the frontline is Working on Fire (WOF).

WOF's Limakatso Khalianyane said its firefighters were employed in terms of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and that their stipends were determined annually by the Minister of Labour.

The stipends range from R116.77 per day for a firefighter, and up to R290.59 per day for a crew leader.

Khalianyane said:

We recruit young people from disadvantaged areas and train them as veld and forest firefighters. We give them more skills, so they are employable in the formal sector.

"We have a little less than 750 firefighters in the province," said Khalianyane.

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