‘Run, gogos, run’: Gqeberha grannies run gauntlet learning to fight devastating shack fires

‘Run, gogos, run’: Gqeberha grannies run gauntlet learning to fight devastating shack fires
Community Chest donated 50 fire extinguishers to residents of Walmer in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape on 4 August 2023. Attie Knoetze from Wide Horizon advance training helped with the technical side of the fire extinguishers. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

After years of loss of lives and property in Walmer in the Eastern Cape, a charity is teaching young and old people to be community firefighters, adding prevention to its disaster relief efforts.

With a little apprehension, a lot of laughter and buckets of community support, 40 firefighters — most of them grandmothers and grandfathers and young people still looking for jobs — have been trained by the Community Chest to become the first responders to shack fires.

Every year during the winter months, devastating shack fires lead to the loss of lives, precious possessions and livelihoods in Walmer Township.

The narrow streets are difficult to navigate and, with a lack of street signs and house numbers, it is often difficult for the fire department to respond in time. But now community firefighters are at hand to deal with small fires before they wreak havoc.

Sandy Geswint Abdoll, the project manager for Community Chest in the Eastern Cape, said that over the years there had been fires with devastating loss of life in Walmer and Airport Valley.

That was why the charity had started conducting the firefighting training.

“This is just the pilot project but my thinking was, why are we giving out building materials each year when we can help with prevention? That was how this started. To rather train people.”

She said the training had been provided to the community at no cost.

Attie Knoetze, shack fires training

Attie Knoetze from Wide Horizon advance training shows Walmer Township residents how to use fire extinguishers. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“The plan is to have community firefighters,” she said. “The idea is for them to go home and chat with their immediate neighbours and show them how to use the fire extinguisher and share the information.

“So when disaster strikes, whoever is home can jump in and prevent a disaster.”

Community leader Julia Mbambo said Airport Valley had been in mourning after the deaths of two people in a shack fire recently.

During the training, the community said fires were most frequently started by drunk people smoking in bed, but also by candles and paraffin stoves.

Attie Knoetze, a retired firefighter who conducted the training, said houses made of wood and iron sheeting are the most dangerous structures in a fire and will often burn to the ground. He added that community members should make sure that they have more than a single door to get out of their house in case of a fire.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape Town fire leaves 190 people homeless as children approach school year from the ashes

He showed community members how to use a basic fire extinguisher. He also taught them what to use if they did not have a fire extinguisher — cornflour or washing powder can be used to put out certain types of fires. Community members were also shown what to do when a person is on fire.

After that, Mbambo took the new firefighting squad through some running drills and songs.

“When there is a fire,” she said to much laughter, “you have to be wakker. There will be none of this slow walking. You must run, gogos, you must run.”

Fire extinguisher training, shack fires

Walmer Township residents learning how to use fire extinguishers against shack fires. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

In a recent response to the Eastern Cape legislature, the MEC for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Xolile Williams, said the Nelson Mandela Bay metro needed 47 fire engines but had only 27.

The DA’s Vicky Knoetze, who asked the question in the legislature about the availability of fire engines, said they were in short supply across the province.

“The situation is now so dire that the number of operational fire engines in the province has dropped to just 62, down from 68 last year, which is roughly one fire engine for every four needed.

“Residents across the province are having to deal with more extreme weather events. This weekend severe winds felled trees, disrupted power lines, ripped roofs off buildings and caused runaway fires.

“These are the circumstances where well-equipped fire and rescue vehicles are most needed. Sadly, the fleet available is woefully inadequate,” she added. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.



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