Research and Rural Upliftment Meet at the Firebreak

Bright yellow shirts and big yellow fire trucks have been evident in the Pretoriuskop area of the Kruger National Park since early March 2007. The reason? SavFIRE or the Savanna Fire Ignition Research Experiment is being conducted in Kruger.

This is a collaborative exercise between Scientific Services in the Park and the Working on Fire group of scientists and fire managers to investigate integrated fire management and how to achieve fire mosaics to improve or maximize biodiversity in savanna ecosystems.

Working on Fire is the major funder and provides most of the manpower to successfully co-ordinate and implement a research project of this nature and magnitude. SavFIRE is being conducted over five years in three major landscapes in the Park.

Working on Fire (WoF) is a government funded, integrated fire management program based on alleviating poverty and uplifting people. Three and a half years ago in September 2003, private enterprise joined forces with government to address disaster management and poverty by providing opportunities for unemployed people, preferably from informal settlements, to be trained in fire fighting and prescribed burning.

The plan for WoF is that it becomes sustainable and eventually self-funding, so should government funding change in the future, these opportunities for gaining life skills and upliftment for unemployed folk would not cease to exist.Prospective fire fighters, both men and women, must first pass a fitness test, a basic medical examination and undergo an aptitude interview. There is no gender issue in WoF, opportunities are equal for all. Successful applicants are trained to different levels of competency so those aspiring to be crew leaders must be able to speak English and must be literate. Working on Fire will also uplift literacy levels, if the successful applicant so wishes.

The WoF accredited training division gives the selected fire crews comprehensive training in a wide range of subjects such as integrated fire management, hygiene, social skills, finance management, banking procedures etc.

This poverty relief program has a fixed entry and exit policy and aims to make people employable in other sectors of society rather than providing permanent employment in WoF. As the long-term aim is to make the program self-sustaining, in certain cases the exit policy can be extended if necessary.

Zero Tolerance For Unfitness

Since fire management is a dangerous business and cannot be taken lightly there is zero tolerance for unfitness – the crews must be fit. Crews run a minimum of five to 10 kilometres every morning and engage in daily exercises to maintain fitness levels.

A comment by one of the Kruger National Park game guards working with the teams is that “you cannot tell if a fire fighter is male or female, they’re equally fit and all do the same work!”

There is also a high discipline requirement because undisciplined people are a danger to themselves, and also to their team members. Each fire crew has 23 members, plus a 4x4 vehicle with a driver, and is composed of two teams of 10 fire fighters with one junior crew leader and one senior crew leader per team.The training is based on the US Forever‘Hotshot’ crew system for prescribed burning, and fire fighting or suppression but has been Africanised to suit local conditions. The South African crews are primarily hand-crews; they use beaters, knapsack sprayers and rakoes (a McLeod) to cut fire lines.

Crews are fully self contained and can be based anywhere in the field as they have their own equipment, accommodation in tents and are self-catering as they have cooks who have been trained to cater for the crews under field conditions.

With these levels of fitness, discipline and organisation the WoF crews could be used not only for fire management and controlling wild fires but also for disaster management, and indeed they have been called upon to assist in a wide range of disaster situations such as searching for missing small aircraft, lost mountaineers and the like.

Two Fire Seasons

Working on Fire is part of a national resource that can be mobilised year-round from the Western Cape to the Limpopo Province because South Africa has two fire seasons, one in the summer rainfall regions and the other in the winter rainfall areas.

It is based on a dispatch and co-ordination system so that resources countrywide can be moved and used where there is a critical need. It also aims at creating partnerships such as the one in the Kruger Park where WoF crews assist Sanparks (South African National Parks) with integrated fire management.

There are 50 WoF bases throughout South Africa organised under three co-ordination centres that can dispatch resources to disaster areas. Everything is controlled using an Incident Command System based on the United States model as efficient, effective co-ordination and a high degree of implementation based on implicit discipline is essential in fire or disaster management.

Aerial Support

On a fire, spotter planes and/or aerial support are vital for co-ordinating activities on the ground so WoF developed partnerships with associations who had existing aerial capacity. Initially helicopters were chosen for the important task of transporting crews to fight wild fires, with spotter planes for command and control, and water bombers for water supply and bombing to assist the hand-crews on the fire lines.

Helicopters proved to be too expensive so each crew now has its own fully equipped fire truck and in case of emergencies far from their base, the crews will be flown in by aircraft should the emergency dictate the need.

The researchers involved in SavFIRE have come to appreciate the vital role the spotter pilot plays in directing suppression where necessary, or advising on rate of spread of the fires and the fire behaviour, especially when simultaneously burning paired plots using different types of ignitions.Ground based co-ordination of such a venture on large experimental burns that of necessity have to be sited an adequate distance apart so that the one fire does not influence the behaviour of the other, would be an impossible task.

The spotter plane flying above the burns also provides valuable opportunities for the researchers to become airborne and document fire spread and the development of mosaics of burnt and unburnt areas using aerial photography.

An All-Encompassing Philosophy

Success is based on an all-encompassing philosophy and so WoF addresses all facets of fire management including advocacy to cater for fire awareness and information provision to the media. They have teamed up with Sappi in developing educational materials and aids and the Department of Education has included in the school curriculum courses that teach children about fire.

Under the advocacy program some fire fighters have become transport managers, others have acquired accounting qualifications and are now working in the WoF offices assisting with finance management, still others have developed computer skills and have entered private enterprise.The SavFIRE/WoF collaboration has provided fascinating and exciting experiences for all concerned, from fire fighters to researchers. Safety is a non-negotiable issue with WoF so all who are official participants have been issued with personal protective equipment (PPE’S), notably the long-sleeved bright yellow 100 percent cotton shirts etc. Even visitors to the fire sites are instructed to wear 100 percent cotton long-sleeved shirts and long trousers with sturdy closed shoes and are briefed on safety before coming on site.

Bravo 2 Calling Bravo 1

Since March 126 kilometres of fire breaks have been burnt around eight blocks in the Pretoriuskop area resulting in not only prime game viewing for tourists, but also tricky situations for the teams on the ground where confrontations with rhino, elephant and buffalo are not to be discounted!

The WoF incident commander for SavFIRE is Chris Austin with Bandit Steyn and Alex Held delegated as operations chiefs, one controlling operations on the perimeter burn and one controlling the point ignitions. Working in a national park is dangerous and protection from the Park’s game guards is required at all times plus efficient radio communications must be in place.Imagine the tension-charged voice of a fire fighter (who had never been to a national park before) while engaged in lighting a fire line appealing to the operations chief for the game guard to come quickly as they have been confronted by a buffalo - "Bravo 2 calling Bravo 1 (Bandit), Bravo 1 come in pleeease, we have run into a problem, send the game guard quickly there is a buffalo right in front of us!"

Respect for one another and camaraderie is high when working on a fire - when putting in the head fire on the perimeter burn on the Bravo 2000 block late at night, a fire fighter took off his protective helmet and offered it to me as I hurried down the fire line taking official photos with a three to four metre wall of flame on the other side of the 4x4 track racing off into the savanna. Needless to say I declined his very chivalrous offer as he needed the protection from the searing heat far more than I did!Some of the fire crew follows the ignition teams on the perimeter burns lighting the head or back fires with drip torches, to ensure that the fire does not jump the fire breaks while others form the very important mop-up team right at the back of the fire line.

A question repeatedly asked of fire managers is “what happens to the animals?” When lighting a head fire on one of the bigger experimental blocks in SavFIRE the crew leader called over the radio to the operations chief “come in Alpha 1, there is a rhino right in front of us, what must we do?” Bandit replied “everyone must keep close to the game guard till we sort the problem out.”

“Spotter 3, Spotter 3, can you fly low over Alpha 3000 block and see if you can move the rhino out the block.” After several low overpasses by the spotter plane the rhino refused to move out of the block so it was left to make its own decisions as to how to move out of the danger zone.

Animals have been observed taking refuge during fires in bare areas or areas of low grass cover or even hopping over low flames in the back fires to take refuge in the burnt areas. Fire is an integral part of African savannas so animals are generally fire-wise.

The Way to a New Life

WoF is the way to a new life for 3277620many. Thandi from the Matafin Hotshot Crew says she enjoys her job with WoF as she has learned many things that she would never have learned about if she stayed at home. This is her first time to visit a national park and she is delighted at the chance to see a leopard, elephant and even came face-to-face with a buffalo when burning fire breaks – fortunately she listened to the game guard and didn’t run away and there was no danger to the crew. Nosizi is the sole bread winner for herself and her little sister as her parents are both deceased.

She would like to become a crew leader if the opportunity should present itself and hopes to even be sent overseas for WoF. Life and his brother Jeffrey from Bushbuckridge are both on the hotshot crew and find fire fighting an exciting lifestyle.

Many of the other fire fighters have never been to a national park or seen wild animals before and one lass was enthralled when the fire truck met up with a pride of lions on the way back to base at Pretoriuskop.Fortunately the Samel fire truck provided a safe observation post and the crew could enjoy their game viewing. Being part of SavFIRE means you eat on-the-run and sleep on-the-run as when the weather conditions are right – temperatures below 20°C and humidity above 50 percent, it’s all systems go, be it early or late, day or night, Monday or Sunday, and don’t forget, fire waits for no man! “So WoF fire crews we salute you for your months of dedication to assisting science and your commitment to furthering insight into fire management, fire mosaics and fire ecology.”

By Lynne Trollope

Kruger National Park - South African Safari