High summer in the Western Cape. Cloudless days where light lasts long into the evening and the many outdoor attractions are packed with locals and visitors alike.
But there’s another side to summer in this part of the world – and there’s nothing fun about it. Vegetation baked by an unrelenting sun and dried to a crisp by gale-force winds becomes a tinderbox waiting for a spark – and when that spark comes, the fairest Cape turns into an inferno straight from the bowels of hell.
In the wake of the fires that have ripped through the region this season, YOU decided to spend a day with a fire crew to get into the boots of people who put life and limb on the line. "Wildfires really put you to the test," says Wade Brandt (25), one of the firefighters at Cape Town’s Belhar Fire Station.
When uncontrollable fires break out, such as the one at Betty’s Bay last month that raged for two weeks, teams from all over the Western Cape are called up.
"Crews usually rotate every few hours but if a fire is out of control you can work for long hours without a break, sometimes through the night," says Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson Theo Layne.
"The first few hours are usually fine but after that your body starts taking strain.What keeps us going is the spirit among the guys. The camaraderie is unbeatable," Wade says. Luahn Albertyn (22) was deeply affected by the Betty’s Bay devastation. "It was just shocking to see what was once such a beautiful place almost completely destroyed," he says.
"One thing that stuck with me was seeing people’s homes destroyed. I’ve seen a lot and still it doesn’t get any easier witnessing people losing everything."
The day we spent with the firefighters didn’t involve any wildfires but there was plenty going on – and some of the issues had nothing to do with flames at all. Our day starts on a heartbreaking note. The call comes through after 9am: there’s a house on fire in Kleinvlei, a community in Eerste River.
The crew kicks into gear and in a matter of seconds we’re in the fire engine – but the thrill of riding inside the speeding truck soon turns to horror. When we arrive in Kleinvlei we see residents lining both sides of the street. Smoke is pouring from the windows of a blackened house.
"They carried the children out like blankets," one shocked neighbour tells us. More information emerges. Three little boys – four-year-old twins E-Jay and Em-Jay Eksteen and their three-year-old cousin – had been playing with lighters in an upstairs room when the bed caught alight.
Their father, Earl, managed to put out the flames before the firefighters arrived, but the kids are so severely injured we’re told their eyes have been burnt shut. The fire crew, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, enter the house to ensure all traces of the blaze are extinguished.
Hours later, we hear E-Jay and Em-Jay have died. The heartbreaking news, which goes on to make national headlines, leaves the crew reeling. Liesl George (42) has been a firefighter for 10 years but today she’s finding it difficult to disentangle emotionally from the job.
She’s related to the Eksteen family and knew the little boys. "It’s easier to disengage when it’s out there," says Liesl, who has a 16-year-old son. "You feel for the people, of course you do, but when it comes home it’s another ball game. I love this job. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But then there are days like these."
Gabriel Williams (37) has been a firefighter for 15 years and says working through the trauma never gets any easier. "Sometimes you can’t avoid it and the emotions crop up involuntarily. But you generally try to keep work separate from home, so home can be your safe space."
Being a firefighter also means long hours away from the safety of home. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts for 10 days a month, starting at 9am. A typical day at the Belhar station begins with roll call by station commander Virgel Cloete at 9am sharp. He then assigns duties for the day – cleaning the station, polishing the floors, washing the vehicles and patching up damaged hoses are all part and parcel of a firefighter’s job.
When the chores are done, the crew work out at the station gym or in the pool, or wait in the TV room for the next call. There are also small modestly furnished bedrooms to which they can retreat if they need shuteye at night. But on some days – like this one – there’s barely enough time to catch your breath before the next bell sounds and you have just 90 seconds to get ready and go.
"When you’re new on the job things tend to be quite frantic but it eventually becomes routine," Wade says. "You essentially have a minute-and-a-half not just to get dressed, but also to mentally prepare yourself and cut off all emotions because you know there’s a job to do."
Burning buildings and runaway wildfires aren’t the only emergencies firefighters are trained to tackle. A few hours into our day with the Belhar crew, a mother comes rushing into the station, dragging her weeping six-year-old son along by the hand. He has the broken tip of a red crayon stuck so deep inside his ear it’s barely visible and she begs the firefighters to extract it.
But the crayon tip is in too deep and the boy writhes in pain every time they get close.The firefighters, who are also trained paramedics, have no choice but to refer mom and son to a hospital. Soon after, a woman walks dazedly into the station, her golden-brown hair drenched in blood.
She’s been hit on head with the blunt end of an axe, she says. The wound isn’t pretty but it isn’t deep enough to need stitches, so one of the men cleans and dresses it. She refuses to tell them who attacked her so in the end they have to let her go. This job isn’t for the fainthearted, Liesl says, and there are chaplains who visit them when needed and a counselling service is available to firefighters who ask for it.
"When you just store it all in the closet, that closet becomes full and eventually it’ll just burst open," Liesl says. Do they ever fear for their lives? "Yes," Gabriel says. "But if you let the fear get to you in this job, you won’t be able to do it."