Tsitsikamma firefighters were on high alert yesterday after what they called the worst night yet battling a blaze that broke out in the Woodlands area west of Storms River on Wednesday night. Nature’s Valley-based Working on Fire (WoF) teams had gone into Woodlands to mop up but had to suddenly change plans, firefighter Luthando Mzimba, 24, said.
“We have been here since Saturday fighting fires all over Tsitsikamma but this was the worst,” he said.
WoF spokeswoman Mthabiseng Mokoni, 32, said a gale of 50-70km/h had sprung up in the early hours of yesterday, fanning the blaze in and around the MtO pine forest and Woodlands, a small community within the Sarah Baartman Municipality.
By lunch time, the gale had dropped and the fire was under control “but we are watching the wind and are on high alert”, she said.
Mzimba and Mokoni are part of a WoF unit of 314 firefighters with a fleet of five fire trucks and nine evacuation buses based at the Garden Route National Parks’ Nature’s Valley camp.
The team includes WoF employees from as far afield as North West and Mpumalanga as well as units all over the Eastern Cape from Molteno to Mkambati, Tsomo and Witelsbos.
Both SANParks and WoF operate under the auspices of the Department of Environment Affairs.
And typical of the multi-agency approach which has come to the fore in battling the Garden Route fires, the parks organisation has closed its Nature’s Valley camp to tourists and handed it over to WoF.
WoF regional manager Msindisi Poponi, 32, said: “If it takes a month to kill these fires then we are here.”
Between leading the frontline firefighting at night and planning during the day, he had not had much sleep, he admitted tiredly.
“It has been a long week but I enjoy what we are doing, knowing that our actions will save lives and the environment.”
If the Woodlands community had to be evacuated, WoF would transport residents to the Mandela Park Community Hall, he said.
When the WoF units around the country are not actually fighting fires they work on maintaining firebreaks, removing alien vegetation, creating fire awareness — and their fitness.
Mokoni, who is from WoF’s base in Stutterheim, said the slippery, steep terrain around Woodlands and the dense smoke had made things especially difficult and exhausting.
He had joined the organisation because his big brother was already enrolled – and because of the smart dress code, he laughed.
A veteran now of three years’ of fighting fires, he had become better at summing up the situation, he said.
“The first thing we do when we move into a fire area is check the wind and then the type of fuel, meaning the kind of vegetation.
“Then we look for some indigenous trees that will be a safety zone in an emergency because indigenous trees do not burn as easily as alien trees.
“A fire runs through fallen leaves and grass, but when it jumps into the trees it is difficult to stop.”
For Mponyana Sias, 27, of Molteno, this is her first time in Tsitsikamma and her first real fire since she joined WoF in February.
“We practise at home on the farmlands where they light an area and we have to put it out, but this is my first time for the proper thing.
“My parents see the fires on TV and they phone me all the time and say: ‘Are you okay?’
“I was scared at first but you put a wet cloth around your face and you have your fire-resistant jacket and you learn to rely on your colleagues, so it becomes better.”