And so the saga of the Camphill underground fire continues – and for the 25 Working on Fire fire- fighters who for the past five weeks have been labouring in the sweltering Onrus River bed to extinguish it, hell is exactly what it must have felt like. Believe me; you don’t want to go there, either in this life or the next.

A fire-fighter with the specially designed spike tool assisting with bringing the peat fire under control.

When they first went down into the deeply eroded river bed, the surface temperature of some of the hot spots was up to 380 degrees Celsius and the noxious fumes and gasses hung like a pall over the site. Last Thursday the entire group of specialists, land owners and other role players got together at the site to evaluate progress half-way through this first phase of the operation to extinguish the fire, before rehabilitation of this ancient and unique palmiet wetland begins, the only one of its kind, not only in South Africa, but, indeed, the world.

Since the surface fire raged through the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley on 11 January, fanned by gale-force winds, the underground peat fire has continued to smoulder and spread, not only causing extensive environmental damage, but polluting the air to such an extent that the 70 intellectually disabled pupils of Camphill School, their teachers and other staff members have still not been able to return to the premises.
For the children, who are currently being accommodated at Bosko School during the school day, and the boarders who have been living in rented houses in Sandbaai and Onrus, as well as the intellectually disabled adults on Camphill Farm, this has been a long, disruptive and traumatising experience. Because the circumstances surrounding this particular fire have been so challenging, it took months of unravelling red tape and consultations with a variety of specialists to plot a way forward. Local, provincial and national government authorities have been involved, together with independent specialists and agencies, the entire project driven and co-ordinated by Liezl de Villiers of the Environmental Department of Overstrand Municipality.

Throughout the past five months, special drone-mounted cameras have provided thermal imaging of the intensity and spread of the fire. It is an example of the commitment of all the specialists involved that this service has been provided free of charge by Rob Erasmus of Enviro Wildfire. When it became clear that the fire was, in fact, spreading, urgent steps had to be taken to prevent further damage up- and downstream, or sideways beyond the river banks. It was only once this had been accomplished, that the fire fighters could be brought in.

The team of 25 Working on Fire fire-fighters who have been battling the Camphill underground fire for the past five weeks. Centre left is Martin Bolton, designer of the spike tool and next to him is Christo Marais, founder of Working on Fire.

In this highly dangerous operation, where the soil is soft and mushy to a depth of 1.5 metres or more, one misstep could see them plunging down into the furnace 7 metres below. Before they were allowed into the riverbed at all, they were put through intensive operational and safety training. The process they were planning to implement had never been tried in this country before, although it had been designed by South African fire-fighting specialist, Martin Bolton and first used in the massive Indonesian peat fire of 2016, covering hundreds of thousands of hectares.

This is an extraordinary story in its own right, but as he says, it was a wonderful learning experience for him and he was able to make important adaptations to his original design for what the Indonesians called his ‘earth nail’. As he points out, “It’s no good throwing water at the problem: a crust forms on the surface of the peat and the water just runs off it without reaching the source of the fire. So we now use relatively light-weight aluminium pipes with holes drilled around the circumference, which are driven deep into the hot spot and water is sprayed directly onto the fire at high pressure.” He is currently using two of these spike tools simultaneously on the Camphill fire.

They established an anchor point at the upper end of the site and he divided the rest of the location into grids of 10 x10 metres each, which they are working their way through. “Because of the soft muddiness of the earth,” he explains, “we had to create some form of semi-stable surface for the spike operators to stand on, so Camphill farm supplied us with some old metal gates to lay horizontally on the surface.” In many ways, it’s all about ’n boer maak ‘n plan when solving problems like this.

Whatever means they’ve been using, though, it’s clearly working. Thanks to the training the fire-fighters were given and the fact that they literally have to watch their every step, there have been no accidents and the hot spots are diminishing in both number and intensity. Rob’s latest thermal imaging shows that no surface temperature is currently higher than 30 degrees.

As they make their way down the river bed, the fire-fighters are also removing the alien blue gums which have done so much damage in sucking up the river water, drying out the critically important Palmiet and creating dongas and the perfect conditions for a peat fire like this. In most cases, says Martin, when they apply the chainsaws, the trees simply fall over as a result of the mushy soil and burnt roots. The challenge then is to avoid re-ignition when they come down.

Although Angelo Aplon, Deputy Fire-Chief of the Overstrand is reluctant to commit himself, he is cautiously optimistic that the Camphill children may be able to re-occupy their school from the beginning of the third term. Already there is a much lower level of air pollution, but until the Fire Department is happy that all the fires have been extinguished, it will not be advisable for the children to return. However, this will only mark the end of the first phase of the operation.

The longer, more complicated and costly aspect of the project will be the rehabilitation of the wetland. As Heidi Nieuwoudt of Working on Wetlands points out, “Fire is always very charismatic and attention grabbing, but once that’s been dealt with, the difficult rehabilitation process drops off the radar and everyone, from members of the public to the authorities, loses interest.”

However, all the stakeholders agree, this must not be allowed to happen.

This is such a special eco-system that it must be rescued. It is important
not just for the present location of the fire, but all the way up and down the Onrus River, which is only
17.5 km long, and most particularly for the health of the Onrus Estuary, with its indigenous fauna and flora. The lucrative agri-businesses on its banks will also be directly affected.

The first steps on the long road to rehabilitation will be a thorough survey of the entire catchment area, identification of all the inherent problems and the formulation of potential solutions.

Dr Piet-Louis Grundling, also of Working on Wetlands, emphasises the importance of widening the net of stakeholders, including the Departments of Water Affairs and Forestry, as well as those of Agriculture and Land Affairs, so that an integrated approach can be taken to the problem.

Importantly, since this is likely to be an extremely expensive exercise which could take three to four years to complete, everybody should be prepared to make a contribution.

A submission for assistance has already been made to the International Society for Ecological Restoration which will be meeting in Cape Town this September.

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