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Fire Ignites, Community Responds

September 2008. We know they’re coming when, in late August, the Waterberg sky turns from its fine winter blue to a dusty haze. We know they’re coming when the still air kicks up into light breezes and then winds. We know they’re coming because the rainless months have left the tall grass desiccated and yellow. We don’t need to hear the SA Weather Service advice that in many parts of the country conditions are “extremely favourable for runaway fires”. What we don’t know is whether they’ll hold off a while and let summer’s first lightning ignite them, or if man’s negligence will be the cause.

Fire season in the Waterberg is upon us.

Local farmers are quite convinced that on Friday 29 August, rounds of practice rifle fire ignited the dry veld below the south-western escarpment of the Waterberg Mountains. If so, it was not a wise training activity for SAPS to be conducting at this time of year and, very likely started a fire on its 9,000 hectare farm not far from Rankins Pass. Neither the exact movement of the fire nor the sequence of the response is known for sure, but from that Friday through the weekend, at least two fire-fighting helicopters were called in and, when the winds came up, called off. By then, fire had spread to many farms in the Alma Valley.

From the cliffs above, we watched with dread that weekend as strong winds fanned the fire. We could see many kilometres away, as the Alma farming community began its back burning efforts. Our anxiety grew as we watched huge smoke plumes rise while the winds decided which direction to blow, and at what speed.

By early Monday morning, neighbours were on their own high alert. Along the south side of 20 kilometres of the dirt Bakkers Pass Road as it rises into the mountains from near the valley floor, six farms were directly threatened. On the north side of the road – six more farms paid close attention.

By late Monday morning, the fire was moving, and growing. Phone calls flew, radio batteries were re-charged, water bowsers were filled, farm bakkies were converted to fire fighting vehicles (complete with pumps, 500 litre water tanks, and 30 metre hoses), vehicles were fuelled, water backpacks were located, work leaves were cancelled, staff were collected, and planned activities were postponed.

Before too long, about ten vehicles carrying about 40 people and equipment made their way on farm roads to the flames and smoke.

The tow bar on one bakkie broke, tipping over its water tank, pump, and fire hose. Another bakkie lost its sump to the weight of its water tank. The motor of yet another pump simply didn’t start. And, since not all radios were on the same frequency, one farm’s telephone became the neighbours’ central communication hub.

The fire fighting team was a mix of South Africans (Afrikaners, English-speakers, and Northern Sotho) with other local residents from America, Holland, and Germany. There was little debate about what to do. One man’s youth belied his experience with veldfires; neighbours had seen him in action at previous fires. He quickly suggested the deployment of teams and equipment, and the time and place for back burning. We readily acquiesced to his leadership.

Acting without benefit of national, provincial, or local government assistance and without training and professional equipment, this rural community did what rural communities all over the country have known they must do for hundreds of years – rely on each other. Practical experience in emergencies has forged a community-reliant attitude.

In this community, and perhaps most others, fire fighting roles are defined by race. Whites manage the resources – vehicles and equipment; transport and water; food and drink – and make the decisions. Blacks do the difficult and dangerous physical work. The cultural and linguistic gap is very wide.

Twenty-six farm labourers, construction workers, and tourism guides became the front line of the fight. They filled backpacks with water. They broke branches to augment the ineffective rubber fire beaters. They set the back burn in motion. They spread out ten metres from each other along the fire’s moving wall, beating and hosing the fire’s attempt to cross it. From 50 metres behind that wall, the silhouetted profile of the fighters in the light of the flames was a compelling picture of man vs. nature.

The fire fighters had first arrived in the daytime, some in T-shirts and flip-flops, so that by the time darkness fell, bringing with it the night cold, they were not well prepared for the task at hand. In the first few hours, the wind was on the side of the fire fighters, sending the fire in the desired direction. In the darkness, however, the wind changed, picking up pace and heading up the mountain.

Thus it was that in the dark, cold night, with winds fanning flames in all directions, the fighters made their way through the natural obstacles of a mountain side, with water on their backs or branches in their hands. They walked and climbed up steep koppies, and clamoured down the other sides, avoiding the pitfalls of rocks and holes.

By the time we pronounced ourselves beaten by the fire – that is, it raged higher, stronger, faster – it was midnight. By radio, the guys in the mountains were ordered to come down as quickly as they could. During the ensuing hour, the winds whipped the fire to a fearful state, and we could only hope the fighters would find their way down safely. By two in the morning, with the light of the fire to guide the groups of fours and fives, the 26 guys ultimately made their way to the waiting vehicles at the farm road below, relieving our anxieties and worst fears.

It was an awesome display of physical prowess and courage. They were tired, hungry, and thirsty, but danger? – it hadn’t occurred to them. “They” had done the hard work and were at risk. “We” provided the leadership, vehicles, fuel, equipment and sustenance, remaining safe and warm. “Yes”, one worker agreed, “it had been excellent teamwork”.

Did they do it for the expected overtime pay? Did they do it for the anticipated wors and pap en sous? Did they do it because they were asked and told to? Yes, of course, all of that, but they did it primarily because they are part of the community. The symbiotic relationship between the races was never more evident – we needed each other, badly.

We were lucky – while many hectares of grazing land was blackened, there were no injuries and deaths, nor any damage to buildings. The initial fire in Alma Valley, however, tragically took one life and left another in hospital with severe burns. Many farms there lost most or all of their grazing land, their stores of lucerne and hay for the coming months, and some buildings and equipment.

It is a scene repeated throughout fire-prone parts of South Africa, year after year, and may yet again occur this year in the Waterberg. Indeed, many such fires occurred around the country in recent weeks, bringing their share of trouble and tragedy. We’re at the mercy of the weather and humans. Before the rains come, lightning may strike and humans may err. As always, the community will respond.