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Courage amid chaos: From Cape to Canada — how SA firefighters risk all to battle the blazes

Courage amid chaos: From Cape to Canada — how SA firefighters risk all to battle the blazes
Firefighters at Rocklands farm near Simon’s Town, Cape Town, after working hard to tame the massive flames which hit the area on 20 December 2023. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

Daily Maverick spoke to some firefighters during a particularly active fire season in the Western Cape as they braved danger to save animals, properties and people.

From getting trapped in wildfires and risking their lives in gang-riddled areas, to facing off with a bear when deployed to Canada in 2023, South African firefighters have been through the wringer.

Year upon year, residents give thanks to the fearless firefighters who battle for days on end to contain fires around the country, but what exactly is it that they go through to do this job and risk their lives? And what makes South African firefighters world class?

Read our coverage of the Western Cape wildfires:

“I think we’re [South African firefighters] tougher than most,” said Working on Fire (WoF) firefighter Janelle Arends. “We’ve just got that grit, I think, that passion, that if we want to do something we’re going to succeed at it.”

south african firefighters

A firefighter douses vegetation near homes while a helicopter flies overhead in Pringle Bay, Western Cape, during the Hangklip fire in late January 2024. An evacuation order was issued by the Overstrand community for Pringle Bay as fire encroached closer to homes on Tuesday, 30 January. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Arends works as a helicopter personal assistant at the WoF Newlands Base, and has been in the field for 10 years. She said she wanted to be a firefighter because she was inspired by her little sister, who was also a firefighter.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I love being a firefighter because it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s challenging – you have to be tough.”

In an interview with Daily Maverick, operations secretary for Table Mountain National Park Clinton Dilgee said he believed firefighting was a calling. He’s been in the industry for more than 24 years.

“Having managed crews from around the country, having seen and having had interactions with fire managers from around the world – the heart that is displayed by our firefighters – just the intensity, the attitudes that they have towards their jobs – it’s more than a job, it’s a calling.

“Chat to any firefighter and they will tell you that they love their job. No one’s going to be complimentary about the pay, but they love their work. They love that feeling of achievement,” he said.

Risks and challenges

Faith Bacela has been a firefighter with WoF since 2016 and is stationed at their False Bay Base. She said that her experience as a firefighter is something that not many others could imagine – from saving animals and houses before they can succumb to wanton flames, to even getting trapped in a fire herself.

south african firefighters

Firemen battle the Kluitjieskraal fire, which began near Wolseley in the Western Cape. The blaze consumed 20,000 hectares of vegetation in seven days in late January 2024. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“I had a really bad experience in 2017 with the Knysna fire. We were a group of five and were trapped in the fire because of the thick smoke. We couldn’t see anything. [But] we are trained on what to do in such situations,” she said. Bacela said that when confronted with this situation, the firefighter in front of the group will bend down and those behind will put their right hand on their shoulder until the smoke clears.

“We were all scared, but we had to stay calm at all times, just to be able to plan. If Plan A doesn’t work then we jump to Plan B,” Bacela said.

Arends had a similar experience when she was trapped by a blaze in a fire engine during the 2015 Tokai fire. She instructed her team to pour water over themselves as they prepared to drive out of the flames.

“We managed to turn around and [get] out of the fire. We were inside the flames, inside the truck – the tyres were exploding already – that’s how hot it was… I told them to throw [water on themselves],” she said.

“That was a big one for me. But it didn’t discourage me – it kept me going,” she said. “I had to stay calm for them because they were looking up to me and I had to have a solution.”

City of Cape Town firefighter Zolile Mhambi has been a firefighter for 28 years and told Daily Maverick the only time he feared for his life was when his crew had to respond to a fire in a gang-infested area, and were caught in cross-fire.

south african firefighters

Firemen during the Kluitjieskraal fire, which began near Wolseley in the Western Cape in late January 2024. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“There was a shooting… That was the only time I felt like my life was at risk because I had no control over the gangsters and I had no control over how the bullets were going to fly. They might hit me or one of my colleagues; that is a time where I felt a little bit scared,” he said.

Mhambi said the job also took an emotional toll on firefighters.

“It is challenging emotionally, not physically, because we are trained physically to deal with fires. I responded to an informal settlement fire when five family members had died. When we entered the structure, we found them all kneeling down as if giving their last prayers. That was in 2017,” he said.

“Each and every firefighter that came into this job, came as a different person than they are now… I was 19 when I joined the job, so I was fresh and still excited. The way I am now is totally different. I’m no longer emotional about things, if someone gets hurt, my first line of duty is to go and assist that person irrespective of if it’s painful,” he said.

Male-dominated industry 

Firefighting is a rigorous job for anyone – male or female. It requires both mental and physical strength.

Arends said the most challenging part of her job was leading a crew of men. She said she believed the industry needed more women firefighters.

According to Working on Fire, there are more than 5,000 firefighters in its programme – 31% of whom are women (the highest level in any comparable fire service in the world).

south african firefighters

Operations secretary for Table Mountain National Park Clinton Dilgee speaks to Daily Maverick on 26 January 2024 about his experience as a firefighter. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

“At my base, there were no women firefighters – just men. And I was in charge of all of them,” Arends told Daily Maverick. “I just told them that I can do the things that you can do, and I can also be the best at something if I put my mind to it, then I can really do it.”

Representing South Africa on the global stage

Last year, Canada underwent its worst fire season in history. The scale of the wildfires forced an international response, with firefighting teams from Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa mobilised to help battle the flames.

More than 800 South African firefighters were deployed to help fight the Canadian wildfires. WoF firefighter Ivan Mentjies from Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape was among those deployed to the region. Mentjies began working as a firefighter in 2007.

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

Dressed in their bright yellow jackets and navy blue pants, videos of WoF firefighters singing, dancing and clapping in the Edmonton airport, in the Canadian province of Alberta, after arriving to help with the fires, went viral on social media.

south african firefighters

SA Working on Fire Foxtrot team in action in mid-June on Deep Creek Complex fires. Hundreds of South African firefighters were deployed to Canada to help battle wildfires. (Photo: Supplied)

Mentjies was part of the crew in the viral video. He said the dancing was a tradition, done to boost team spirit.

“We were very happy. For most of us, it was our first time flying overseas. It gets very touchy when you see your name on that list, you do your introspection and say, I’m coming from a rural area but now I’m an ambassador representing South Africa in other countries,” Mentjies told Daily Maverick. 

“For us to make sure everyone is on the same page, we must sing and dance to boost everyone… If there is anyone who is scared, you ease that person by singing and dancing together,” he said.

Mentjies maintained that the South African crews were the best. “We pushed the Australians to the end with fitness and how to roll the pipes there. We were the best,” he said with a grin.

He said that his experience of fighting wildfires in Canada was vastly different to fighting wildfires back home. The terrain is different, the fire suppression strategies are different – even the animals are different, said Mentjies.

“You’ve got bears there, some of which don’t run when they see a human being. If you’re alone, you can be in danger,” he said, adding that his team had stumbled on a bear in Canada, but because they were a large group it ran away. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Absolute heroes the lot of them.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    A great story for a change. Working on Fire firefighters is a national organization and they are civil servants.
    Fire Brigade Services are a Municipal function and many are not adequately financed to render anything like a professional service. Its time Fire Brigade Services were nationalized in SA like they are in the UK, then we could have a service that is adequate for all parts of SA.

  • Niek Joubert says:

    It seems the S.A. firefighters have now curbed their expectations, because they initially demanded higher remuneration, etc when they first went to Canada, some 10 years ago, resulting in them loaded on the first aircraft and send back to S.A., therefore forfeiting the already lucrative benefits in S.A. standards. This was partly instigated by a Canadian minister who expressed “shock” at the low wages of the S.A. firefighters, before investigating the local economic conditions.

  • Abel Appel says:

    Well done to our South African firefighters. You keep us safe and we are proud of you. thank you for keeping our flag flying high even in foreign countries. Keep up the good work!!!

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