When it comes to putting out big fires – like last year’s Knysna inferno or April’s Skeleton Gorge burn, the firefighters from the Working on Fire (WOF) base in Newlands are always ready to roll.
WOF is an Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), under the Department of Environmental Affairs, that trains people aged 18 to 35 from poor communities to become professional firefighters.
The Newland’s WOF base is one of 29 in the Western Cape. There are 550 WOF firefighters in the Western Cape and 5000 in the country.
During the peak fire season, from December to April, WOF is on the fire line with the City’s Fire and Rescue service, SANParks fire management, The Greater Cederberg Fire Protection Association, Volunteer Wildfire Services and Cape Nature Reserve fire prevention teams.
WOF does not just go along for the ride. Its recruits get top-class firefighting training for 25 days at the Kishugu Training Academy in Nelspruit.
Apart from firefighting training, the new recruits are also encouraged to pick up other skills – cooking, health and safety, carpentry, computers and more.
You’ve got to be tough to be a firefighter and trainees go through rigorous physical training. The men must do a 2.4km run in 12 minutes; 14 minutes for women. They must do 40 push-ups in a minute and seven pull-ups. And there’s no slacking after they make the grade – their are fitness sessions every Friday at the base.
Vuyokazi Msengana, 31, who is originally from the Eastern Cape but lives in Gugulethu now, joined five years ago and is a fire-crew leader. She says the job is challenging, especially when hiking up the mountains, but the fitness training help them meet the demands of the job.
WOF has an agreement with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre that has seen some firefighters travel to Canada to learn new skills and help put out fires there.
Azola Fumba, 22, from Philippi who has been at WOF for four years, was one of 300 firefighters deployed to Alberta, Canada, in 2016.
“Going to Canada was a lifetime experience,” he said. “Fighting fires there is completely different to how we fight fires. Along the way, we managed to assist in fighting fires with the local crew in Alberta.”
During the off season from June to November, WOF helps with storm relief as part of the Disaster Risk Management team.
But when there’s a big fire to fight all the WOF bases will work together, and firefighters will work in 12-hour shifts at a time so that they get enough rest.
They have a track that can carry 25 firefighters and the Newlands base has three helicopters used to drop water on fires.
WOF spokeswoman Lauren Howard said she saw first-hand the firefighters’ steely determination during the Knysna fires last year.
“I got to experience the true passion of the Working on Fire firefighters and the impact that almost 500 brave young men and women made in the Knysna community. There was never a sad face and our firefighters were ready to go at any hour.”