Pietermaritzburg firefighters battled to contain the inferno at the New England Road landfill site as arsonists kept lighting new fires around the dump.
Estimating the fire to cover a six-kilometre area, the firemen, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were convinced the fire at the landfill site was arson. “On Tuesday night we were livid to see that while we were putting out the fire that was well contained then, that people — probably waste-pickers that live on the site illegally — were setting other sections alight. We had to get security to chase after them but it was too late as the fire has already caught on,” said a fireman.
Another fireman said their solution of dumping sand on the fire and then water was set aside by city officials who visited the site on Tuesday.
“We are the experts when it comes to fire-fighting. We had a quick solution of dumping the heaps of sand, already at the site, over the fire and then dousing it with water, but we were told they would make decisions about how the fire would be put out because they are in charge and we must just do what they say,” said the disgruntled fireman.
The initial fire, they said, would have been contained within a few hours had their advice been taken. “Now it’s going to take us at least a week or more to put out. Putting it out with water is going to do nothing.
“We honestly feel that this landfill site and the fires are part of something bigger. Unfortunately we are the pawns in this game as we have to risk our lives going out there all the time,” said the fireman.
Another fireman said being at the site was like “being in hell”.
“The smoke is so thick and intense. We cannot breathe, and we don’t know where we are going.
“We are walking around blindly and sometimes don’t even know if we going to walk off a cliff. The heat from the fire is so intense that the window glass on our vehicle was so hot, we couldn’t even touch it — and we had the fan on in the vehicle to keep ourselves cool,” said yet another fireman.
They said they were handed respiratory masks on Tuesday, but had no protective gear for their eyes.
“For the first time since the last landfill site fire, we were given masks again — all the other fires we attend to are without masks. We do not have goggles or protective eyewear and run the risk of serious injury if something had to explode,” said the fireman.
The Working on Fire team — an initiative of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Programme in KwaZulu-Natal — were again dispatched to the landfill site with the aim of fast tracking the end of the toxic cloud over the city.
KZN general manager Sifiso Keswa said 18 firefighters and a division superintendent with a Strike Unit Truck were dispatched on Wednesday, in addition to the 16-man crew from the uMngeni team with a 3 000-litre fire truck.
Keswa said Working on Fire, Msunduzi, uMgungundlovu and eThekwini municipality structural firefighters will be working on shifts to ensure a team is always present on site.
“The uMngeni team rotates every four hours to reduce the hazardous effects of the smoke to the firefighters while they suppress the fire.
“We will continue to work tirelessly hand-in-hand with the municipalities to combat this fire, and to prevent what is likely to be a disaster if not addressed swiftly,” said Keswa.
Working on Fire and the firemen expressed their appreciation to all those who had supplied them with water, food and refreshments from Tuesday.