Our Burning Planet


SA firefighters hard at work in Canada, but they might be needed at home this fire season

SA firefighters hard at work in Canada, but they might be needed at home this fire season
South African Working on Fire’s Naledi and Molemane teams at the Ganyesa fire in North West. (Photo: Working on Fire)

Since the start of 2023, more than 800 South African firefighters have been sent to Canada to assist in fighting wildfires. Canada is undergoing its worst fire season in history.

Since June 2023, four firefighting teams from Working on Fire (WoF), a programme of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, have been sent to Canada to assist in that country’s longest and most intense fire season.

Canada has since the start of 2023 recorded 5,800 fires.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lightning strikes, trees burning from the inside — and bears — are all in a day’s work for SA firefighters in Canada

As explained to Daily Maverick in June by Trevor Abrahams, the managing director of WoF who was in Canada with a team in Alberta: “The problem is the peat fires that burn underground.”

“There is just so much organic material under the soil” that keeps reigniting. 

working on fire

Working on Fire Magaliesburg team at a fire suppression in Gauteng in August 2023. (Photo: Working on Fire)

While South Africa has been a key firefighting support team for Canada, at home, the country is about to start its fire season. Changing global weather systems have resulted in extreme weather and fierce fires, as seen in Canada, Greece, Italy, Spain and even Switzerland and Russia, but WoF says this is not a “them” problem.

“South Africa has not and will not be spared these impacts of climate change.”

WoF has some 5,000 firefighters in the programme who are kept busy fighting fires across the country.

On Wednesday, 13 September, WoF’s Linton Rensburg explained to Daily Maverick that WoF does not only put out fires, but also works with municipalities and communities on both preparedness for fires and fire safety and firefighting planning through their Integrated Fire Management Services (IFMS) programme.

“This involves Working on Fire teams conducting various fire prevention preparation activities amongst community and landowners, such as fire breaks, fuel load reduction projects and prescribed burning.”

Rensburg says communities are also educated on “how to prevent fires during the winter fire season months”.

working on fire

Wildebeest fire in Ugie in the Eastern Cape, 22 August 2023. (Photo: Working on Fire)

Aerial firefighting operations at Wildebeest fire near Ugie in the Eastern Cape in August 2023. (Photo: Working on Fire)

IFMS includes fire prevention, fire detection, awareness, suppression and aerial firefighting.

The WoF firefighting programme celebrates its 20th anniversary in October this year and, as evidenced by the IFMS, they do more than just train and deploy firefighters. 

Rensburg says community fire awareness is a large part of IFMS: “Training and making communities more fire resilient – we do this across the country. We also go into schools where we do fire education in fire-prone communities, working with communities living closer to areas where there are regular fires, wildfires and vegetation fires, asking communities not to leave rubble around which will add to the fire.

“Also things like making sure that properties don’t have overhanging trees that can catch fire… and what to do when there is a fire in your home – how to get out… be fire safe. We do this at primary schools and high schools in fire-risk areas.”

SA on alert ahead of fire season

South Africa’s current fire hotspots, says Rensburg, are North West and Free State, “which have experienced the worst fires in our current winter fire season”.

Dr Kobus Roux is the manager of the Potchefstroom Fire Protection Association in North West. Just a few weeks ago, veld fires were ravaging the province and aircraft were dispatched from KZN and Mbombela (Mpumalanga) to assist. Roux told reporters that firefighters even helped to save livestock.

“It is only because of grace that there was no loss of life. No livestock were hurt either.”

Earlier this week, the KZN Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs put the province’s disaster management on standby, with spokesperson Nonala Ndlovu saying, “According to the South African Weather Service, KwaZulu-Natal will experience windy, dry and hot conditions in different areas. The winds… could facilitate the rapid development and spread of fires.”

working on fire

Seven Working on Fire teams in the Eastern Cape assisted in the Wildebeest fire in Ugie. (Photo: Working on Fire)

Ndlovu urged that people “avoid lighting fires in open areas or leaving them unattended… refrain from disposing of cigarette butts from cars or in open fields” and avoid leaving glass bottles in the sun as they could also start blazes.

WoF’s Rensburg says municipalities are required to be part of fire protection bodies – like the Potchefstroom Fire Protection Association – and in areas where veld fires are prevalent, they “should also provide wildfire help to communities and landowners in their municipalities”.

WoF also provides additional support to municipalities when there are prolonged fires. They manage this via “5,221 firefighters at 230 bases across South Africa, providing firefighting and fire prevention services to partners and landowners”.

There is also an effective aerial firefighting capability which they provide, made possible through a joint venture with Kishugu Aviation, which sees 14 fixed-wing spotter planes, 11 Huey helicopters, four AT fixed-wing water bombers 802, and one AT water bomber 502 bolstering capacity.

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Mamusa team suppresses a fire in Tosca, North West. (Photo: Working on Fire)

Globally, scientists say global warming and climate change have affected fire seasons, which are growing longer, along with a rise in seeing more extreme weather and temperatures.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hot, hot July 2023 set to be hottest month in recorded history — almost certainly caused by humans burning fossil fuels

Global Forest Watch, an online platform which provides “data and tools for monitoring forests”, reports that between 12 September 2022 and 11 September 2023, 944 fire alerts were captured for North West and 388 for Free State (with the most fires recorded in a year in Free State, being 427 in 2010).

At the end of August, a fourth group of 200 WoF firefighters finished prepping and took off for a deployment to British Columbia, Canada. Two days earlier, on 23 August, the third group to assist Canada since June arrived back in Mpumalanga after 33 days of firefighting.

If predictions are accurate, South Africa may well soon need all its firefighters to deal with blazes on home soil. DM

Absa OBP

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