Narander Leeuwner, Head of Communications, Kishugu: “Working on Fire has become a key partner to many organisations operating in the environmental, firefighting and conservation field, including Provincial Disaster Managment, local authorities, SANParks, private forestry companies and Fire Protection Associations with private landowners.”
Founded in 2003 and funded by government, Working on Fire is a job creation programme designed to meet the needs of local communities but which can also be deployed nationally in times of major fires. The programme falls under umbrella company Kishugu, which manages the recruitment and training of people in wildfire firefighting and suppression. Alleviating poverty through job creation and social upliftment twinned beautifully with the need to address ecological issues such as combating unplanned, runaway wildfires while presenting some meaningful livelihood opportunities for young, unemployed people – currently there are about 5000 trained wildfire firefighters based at 200 bases throughout South Africa, supported by specialist fire-fighting aircraft from Kishugu Aviation.
Our last fire season in White River appeared to be a particularly stormy one for residents and businesses. For weeks, acrid smuts darkened our skies and billowing clouds of smoke poured into the air above the plantations and farmlands encircling town.
Many people stopped what they were doing and headed outdoors to watch the little yellow spotter plane darting hither and thither, guiding firefighting activities from the air, while the Huey helicopter gracefully dipped a dangling “bambi” bucket into dams and lakes before lifting a staggering 1200 litres of water with barely a grunt, making a neat turn and heading off to decant water over the flames – cooling temperatures thus allowing the ground based firefighters to do their work.
Few of us got any closer on the ground, however, so missed seeing the ground support crew at work. Kishugu has a fleet of especially equipped transport and support vehicles which deliver wildfire fighters wrapped up in personal protection equipment into the heart of hell. Fighting blazing flames, engulfed by choking smoke in searing temperatures while a mischievous wind whips the wildfire to a new frenzy is tough work for the ground crew.
As you’d expect, fitness and discipline are essential components but you may be surprised to discover that 33% of the employees are women, a higher level than any comparable fire fighting force worldwide. Fitness levels are constantly monitored and tested and crew members know exactly what to do and how to do it. This is a hazardous, strenuous, extreme occupation and while the flying skills of the pilots hold us spellbound, spare a thought for the life-threatened, uncomfortable firefighters on the ground, theirs is a job for the bold and the brave. Better yet, why not show them the warm heart of our community and if you know of a local base, deliver some bottled water and energy bars for the guys?
The courageous firefighters and pilots of Working on Fire are thus deserving recipients of White River Star status and we salute them.