The Thin Yellow Line | Volunteer Wildfire Services: A Call to Serve
As 9/11 approaches I feel that this post is fitting in honor of all rescue personnel around the world. This past new year, I made a resolution to follow my passions and rekindle my hobbies. No longer will life just be about a job, money and the “rat-race.” Getting involved in what makes us whole is infinitely more sustainable for our wellbeing. One of the ways I have filled this void is giving back to the community. It was during the devastating fires of March this year when I learned about the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) and their outstanding contribution to the Cape’s natural heritage. The call to serve hit home. I signed up for the 2015/2016 fire season and beyond.
“The VWS have been combating dangerous and often deadly runaway fires since being baptized through the devastating fires in 1999 / 2000 in Cape Town. The VWS has assisted the Table Mountain National Park and Cape Nature as a first responder with some of the wildest fires the Cape has ever experienced. The VWS can only do this with the support of the public. All of their members are volunteers and they rely solely on donations. Their mission is clear. Save South Africa’s natural heritage, property, and lives.”
I have the added benefit of meeting like minded people, keeping fit with a lot of hiking, and exploring the mountains that I love. For the past 5 months, I have been training out of Newlands Fire Base hidden within the beautiful Newlands Forest. There are no heroes in my unit. Most are a bunch of passionate and dedicated men and women who stay humble though doing more than is asked of them.
Training has been hard but fun. For the outdoor adventure enthusiast with a call for service, this is definitely the right place to be. The little boy inside has enjoyed various skills training including fire line safety, the incident command structure, map work & GPS, radio communication and signals, first aid, water pumps and fire hoses. A very large part of our training is fitness in the form of plyometric training and day and night hikes. Fitness is key for a wildland firefighter. Imagine the dry cape summers, forty degrees heat, heavy gear, hiking up a mountain before you even start battling the smoke and flames.
Some of the most memorable sessions so far have been hiking devils peak at night on a full moon, getting muddy, dirty and soaking wet with pumps and hoses and most recently, attending and intensive wildland firefighting training camp in the mountains near Ceres.
Wolwekloof Training Camp
Wolwekloof Academy tucked away in the mountains about ten kilometers from Ceres. The Cape Provincial Disaster Management Centre sponsored this intensive weekend. It all started at 5:30 am on Saturday where I made my way into to mountains for a day scenario that tested my fitness and competency in the various firefighting skills.
After a short rest on a hard tent floor, the evening opened with a well-planned “mock fire” emergency. The excitement of a divisional briefing in full gear, the flashing of red lights and the screaming of sirens had my blood pumping. My team “Echo”, led by a brilliant crew leader protected structures, attended to injured comrades and held the fire line in what was an epic night of professionalism displayed by the many teams, of over 100 men and women, who worked together to combat the simulated fire that was descending down a mountain. The closest I have gotten to the real fire call.
Fatigue, pain, sweat and dirt were washed away by a cold shower and the hard tent floor where I hung up my boots for the day. Needless to say, I had no trouble sleeping.
The next morning, geared up and fed, I shook off the aches from the day before. The weekend would conclude with a 15km hike through the mountains above the Bainskloof Pass.Situated between Wellington and Ceres this is one of the most picturesque passes in the Cape. The scenery is incredible. The “Wit Rivier” (White River) carves its way through steep slopes as you follow its shimmer on the narrow and windy roads above. The sound of motorcycles enjoying the Sunday ride was heard in the distance as my team plotted our coordinates to our first checkpoint.
The initial scene was bleak. A mountain scorched by a wildfire the season before was a reminder of the danger and devastation that waits. Rehydrating and eating, our crew leaders drilled into us the importance of safety.
Some members befell to physical exertion and were evacuated to rest. There was no shame in it. You are only as strong as your weakest member. It’s teamwork, no heroes. We were lucky to cross a number of ice cold natural streams. I felt alive as I dipped my head into the ice cold water and drank the sweet minerals. It was not going to get purer than this. The panoramic views extended 360 degrees, onto other mountains, a sight different from the mountains around Cape Town. We were isolated. We were wild. Pushing through exhaustion the sacrifice for the wonderful environment that surrounded us was so worth it.
The hike ended in a brief ride back up through the majestic Bainskloof, crammed in the back of a land rover crew carrier. Tired, sweaty and trying to make some humor out of the uncomfortable position we were in the weekend drew to a close. This was as real a simulation we could get. A job well-done. I do not think that words can describe how I appreciated a warm shower, a Steers burger and a proper bed on Sunday evening. And so I rested, reflecting on an incredible adventure and prepared for what was to come on the journey ahead.