Volunteer firefighter Bradley left home to fight flames advancing on Garden Route town and never returned
When young volunteer firefighter Bradley Richards raced out of the house to fight devastating fires in Plettenberg Bay, his mother told him not to try to be a hero. He shouted back: “I won’t, Ma.”
Three hours later he was lying in hospital critically injured. In the early hours of yesterday, he succumbed to his terrible burns.
Richards, 24, and his volunteer supervisor Ian Barnard, 39, had been among a huge team of firefighters whose gallant efforts to bring runaway veld and forest fires that ravaged the Garden Route under control have won the hearts and gratitude of all those affected.
Barnard, who also suffered extensive burns, is still fighting for his life at the George Provincial Hospital.
Richards’s stepfather, Norman Doyle, said his wife Theresa – the firefighter’s mother – was too overcome with grief to speak. “Theresa is in a state. We are all taking it hard, especially Bradley’s sister Tammy.”
Doyle described Richards as a “super-hero” who always went out of his way to help others.
“He was the kindest, nicest, friendliest young man. If you go on social media right now you will see nothing but praise for him. He never complained about anything, even when he was so seriously hurt. He is a soldier and an absolute hero,” he said.
Doyle said Richards, who was originally from Alberton in Gauteng, had moved to Plett with his family five years ago and had volunteered as a fireman with the Plett South fire management unit for the past four years.
He said Richards had worked as a sales and marketing consultant for the family business.
“He left home around 9.30am on Wednesday. He got a call to say that help was needed and his mother was in the shower at the time. She ran out and called to him, telling him to be careful and not to be a hero,” Doyle said, choking back tears.
Richards responded with “I won’t, Ma”, before joining the others to fight the fire. “We could see it in the distance from our farm. The smoke was terrible. His mother sent him a message to say he must go away from there. She asked whether we should fetch him.
“He read that message. We sent another message at 11.15am and he did not see that one. That is how fast it happened. The winds were blowing at 70km an hour and suddenly the flames were blowing in their direction and surrounded them.”
Doyle said he had learnt from managing to talk to his stepson in hospital that he and Barnard had jumped back into their miniature fire truck and had tried to leave the area but the truck would not start. Frantic, they quickly decided to flee on foot but were engulfed in flames.
“Bradley was not wearing his full kit. He had his overalls on but was not wearing the full jumper suit over that. While they were running Ian took off his jacket and put it over Bradley to try to put out the flames. Ian put his life on the line by doing that.”
Doyle said the two men had been rescued from the flames by another fireman, Shaun De Almeida, who transported them on his bakkie. “He took them to the Plett Medi Clinic, but they looked bad. Both were critical and in the ICU. Bradley was responsive. We gave him water through a syringe and he was struggling to speak but could talk.
“They spent the night at the mediclinic but the next day they were transferred to the hospital in George – Ian in an ambulance and Bradley by helicopter.
“The senior surgeon had a look at him and came to speak to us at about 7pm [on Thursday].
“She said there was not much hope that he would get through the next 48 hours. She said if he did he would need both arms and one leg amputated.
“She said the burns to his torso were so severe he would need to be treated in hospital for at least one year and she told us to prepare for the worst.”
Doyle said they had been in a George hotel at 3am when the hospital called to say Richards’s blood pressure had dropped dramatically.
He said he, Theresa, Tammy and her husband Mark had been at his side when he died 30 minutes later.
Barnard’s father-in-law, Frank Beale, said his daughter Stephanie was still at her husband’s hospital bedside.
“He is recovering slowly but he will need to stay in hospital for some time,” he said. “He was really badly burned, especially his hands and his face. His face is all swollen up.”
He said adding to the family’s devastation was the fact the home they had been renting had been completely gutted.
A minute of silence was observed for Richards yesterday by more than 100 residents who gathered at the local fire station, where they left flowers and paid their respects.
Otto Olivier, head of operations at the Plettenberg Bay crime prevention association, said Richards had been a true friend and a fighter for his community.
Bitou mayor Peter Lobese said Plett had “lost a giant”.
“He sacrificed himself for nothing but the love of his community.”
Emotional Bitou mayoral spokesman Dumisani Mweba, who was with Richards and his colleagues during their firefighting efforts, said he was devastated by the news.
“Bradley was a hero who fought for his community right until the end. His passion was something to behold.”
Mweba said while in the field Richards had motivated his fellow firefighters and faced danger bravely.
Wesley Andrew, 30, who worked with Richards at the crime prevention association, said he would be remembered by all the people whose lives he had touched.
Meanwhile, Southern Cape police spokesman Captain Malcolm Pojie rubbished reports of arsonists being behind the devastating fires.
A voice note was circulated on several social media groups of a man claiming suspects had been caught redhanded setting fires.
“There is no truth to this and it is causing even more panic.”
He said the cause of the fires was still unknown. “Authorities are busy with investigations and forensic dogs will be brought in to get to the bottom of what caused the fires.”
The SANParks team has also been tasked by the JOC (joint operations committee) to map affected infrastructure onto a GIS system to establish the losses from the Knysna fires.
According to Len du Plessis, planning manager for the Garden Route National Park, firefighters would also have to take full advantage of a window of opportunity before winds pick up again to an estimated 42km/h by 11am today.