Whether battling infernos precariously on mountain slopes, marching triumphantly through towns after a successful day’s work, completing mopping-up exercises or deploying the latest in home-grown advanced fire-fighting technology, the men and women in yellow shirts have become a familiar and welcome part of the Overberg landscape.

Many residents literally owe their lives and their homes to the determination, professionalism and fearlessness of Working on Fire (WoF). But, in one of their biggest challenges yet, their skills, expertise and fortitude are being put to the test in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where a 25-member team has set up a ‘base camp’, for the next three months, to put out the underground peat fires that have made it impossible for Camphill School children and personnel to return home.

Amid toxic gas and smouldering smoke, the Working on Fire team deploys their innovative spike technology to flood the underground with water to put out the peat fires. PHOTO: WoF

Working in toxic gas conditions that are constantly monitored by meters, smouldering smoke, and ground that can give way under one’s feet at any time, WoF is employing a unique spike that they developed in Indonesia when they were asked, in 2015, to assist in fighting underground peat fires in South Sumatra.

This is the first time that this spike is being used in South Africa. Focusing on an 800 m², WoF uses the power of the water that squirts out of holes along the spike to drill down into the ground and flood the peat from the bottom up. Nine 1.4 – 1.5 metre deep holes are drilled per square metre of land.

Showing off the spike that was developed by Working on Fire are (from left to right) Lester Smith (Overstrand Fire Chief), Lauren Howard-Clayton (WoF Provincial Communications Officer), Shane Christian (WoF: National General Manager), Ray-Yaan Majiet (WoF: Ground Operations Manager), Angelo Aplon (Overstrand Assistant Fire Chief), Melany Duthie-Surtie (WoF: WC General Manager) and Tarron Dry (Overstrand Municipality: Environmental Officer). The spike was developed when WoF was asked to assist the Indonesian government in November 2015 in fighting destructive underground peat fires that had been raging for over six weeks in South Sumatra. PHOTO: Hedda Mittner

Working on Fire

  • Over 5 000 people, 94% of whom are youths, across 200 bases in South Africa
  • Recruits are trained in fire awareness and education, prevention and fire suppression skills
  • 31% of team members are women, the highest level in any comparable fire service in the world
  • 3% are disabled
  • A subsidiary of Kishugu Holdings (Pty) Ltd, Working on Fire is actually an example of providing a private sector solution to a state-owned entity. Since 2003, Kishugu has been re-awarded the Project WP9191 tender and the project has grown by 30% per annum. In 2013, WoF was awarded a seven-year contract by the Department of Environmental Affairs
  • WoF is widely regarded as the best performing Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) in South Africa
  • WoF South Africa has partnerships with Indonesia, Canada, and Mexico

In their first day of operations on 1 May, WoF completed an 80 m² portion, but the land will need to be repeatedly flooded to extinguish the fires. While WoF normally operates on a 24-hour schedule, the dangerous conditions have forced them to only work during the day.

Wiseman Thulani Mbele, Type 2 Crew Leader from the Kleinmond base, is one of the members of the team. “This is the first time that we are doing this but so far, so good. The team just adapted, very easily and quickly.”

Wiseman Thulani Mbele, Type 2 Crew Leader from the Kleinmond Team, is one of the 25-member team tackling the underground peat fire at Camphill School. He was also one of the unsung heroes who fought the Knysna fire in June 2017. PHOTO: WoF

Part of the many challenges facing WoF is that the ground has fractured into honeycomb cracks through which a strong-smelling combination of sulphates, carbon dioxide and methane are seeping. Tarron Dry, Overstrand Municipality: Environmental Officer, says they have taken infrared photos to determine the surface temperatures but, in some places, the fire goes down four metres. In areas towards the centre of where WoF is working, temperatures of 330 degrees Celsius have been recorded. “It’s a very dangerous place to be working,” he adds.

 

Originally from Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape where he was raised by his grandmother, Working on Fire Crew Leader, Wiseman Thulani Mbele, moved to Villiersdorp in 2009 to stay with his parents. “While growing up, I pushed very hard to make sure I made my parents very proud. In 2013, my matric year was very difficult for me as a lot happened in my family that pushed my confidence and motivation down. I pressed through and matriculated in 2013. After school, I joined Working on Fire (WOF) in March 2014 at the Kleinmond base.”

A father of two sons and a daughter, the 25-year old has been selected over the years for additional leadership training by his Regional Manager, Shantell Frans. “My aim is always to make my RM proud and to be a strong leader for my team. Outside of work I am a multi-talented person. I am a boxer, hip hop artist and a vocalist, and most importantly, I am a very caring father to my children and aim to be a good example in their lives,” says Wiseman.

Shane Christian, National General Manager, says, “The project in the Overstrand is just one of our day-to-day challenges that come along, and we have to adapt.”

“I was in a comfortable position as Chief Fire Officer in the Eastern Cape. I saw WoF growing over the years and, basically, I became jealous. So I thought, let me join the team and make a bigger impact. I subsequently joined WoF in 2010. I moved to the Western Cape in 2011 and have worked on various jobs. It is a very exciting job because you work with various partners in various situations. It is the private sector so you are kept on your toes all the time.”

Shane Christian, Working on Fire: National General Manager

Normally, WoF team members set up camp and make do in whatever environment they are put in. But this time, Camphill has donated its premises. “This is quite a luxury. We even have DStv,” jokes Shane.

Angelo Aplon, Overstrand Assistant Fire Chief, says the subsurface fire along the section of the Onrus River at Camphill has been burning since 11 January 2019 and they were unable to extinguish it. This is why WoF has been asked to help. Even the recent rains in March and April have not had an effect in filling up the water table.

“This is not an ordinary fire,” says Overstrand Fire Chief, Lester Smith. “There were a lot of different options but this is the way we have decided to move forward.”

One of the crucial reasons for calling in WoF is the environmental sensitivity of the area. A statement by the Overstrand Municipality says, “This wetland is characterised as the only remaining piece of palmiet vegetation wetland, which plays a critical role in the functioning of the Onrus River and the Onrus Estuary and is of considerable ecological importance and must, therefore, be protected.”

Simply put, this wetland, which WoF is fighting to save, is the only natural filtering system that keeps the Onrus Estuary in balance, which is important not only for the recreational and agricultural activities of the surrounding community, but also for the survival of its faunal and floral systems.

According to the Onrus River Estuary Forum (OREF), the peatland covers an extensive area of 33 hectares, and is estimated to be 12 000 years old. The fire is burning in a nine-hectare area that is eroded and covered with aliens. WoF’s focus is on 800 m² in this area. The peat is 7.25 m deep, although, in the central channel, it is even deeper.

Along with Working of Fire, this Public-Private Partnership project involves Camphill, Overstrand Municipality, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Enviro Wildfires, landowners, the Breede Gouritz Catchment Area (BGSMA) and more.

The job that Working on Fire is doing is DANGEROUS. Please AVOID the area and let the experts get on with their work.  Apart from smoke, there are potentially toxic gases. This dynamic and dangerous fire has resulted in the ground becoming soft and unstable. There are places where it just sinks away and you could be trapped.

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