Observing Fire in the Fynbos

Fire permeates all latitudes, and even at what feels like the bottom of the world, fire courses through the roots of South Africa’s ecosystems. Born on the fire continent, the fynbos ecosystem of Western Cape resembles many other Mediterranean-like climate biomes in its regenerative processes linked to fire. Literally meaning “fine leaf”, the fynbos resembles the arid adapted vegetation of southern California and it must burn in cycles of 12-15 years in order to achieve its desired fire severity. This natural cycle becomes complex when integrated with the valuable and expensive infrastructure we place within it, and we provide policies or negligence that shorten or lengthen this cycle. The mixture resembles those of other places, a landscape and human dimensions that are not in sync and thus experience occasional, volatile outbursts of friction.   

My attraction to this place, in addition to its predisposition for fire, was the opportunity to relive my “lost” firefighting season of 2019. Due to my acceptance of the fellowship, I was unable to join my USFS brothers on the western slopes of the US, and so I opted to make form new fraternal bonds on the western slopes of SA. Joining the Nature Conservation Company (NCC) Type 1 Crew has been, by far, one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of my year so far

The crew structure includes two distinct teams, “Alpha & Bravo” and “Charlie & Delta”, with their respective squads. In total, the Type 1 crew includes 20 individuals with fire experience ranging from 3 years to 20 years, and all with fitness levels equivalent to that of an endurance runner. Many are the product of Working on Fire (WoF), a government works project aimed at elevating members from low-opportunity communities. Most on the crew call the Eastern Cape of South Africa home, however Zambia, Burundi, and the DRC are all represented. Their stories and backgrounds range widely, however all are united in their love for fighting fire and their passion for one another. It is an incredibly tight group and it is a daily honour to have earned their trust and respect. Together we have fought many fires, with my current total for the season resting at 10 deployments. These deployments typically last 24 hours, and are riddled with glaring differences of the US experience.

Wildland firefighting is not recognized as a professional industry in the Western Cape, despite the massive risk that much of the region owns. The reason for this is that it is viewed as job for “unskilled labor” and the necessary knowledge of fire behaviour, ecology, mountain navigation, crew dynamics, and actual firefighting, is subsequently dismissed. The logistical aspects of firefighting in the US that we are so accustomed to: meals provided, rest time, water resupply, aerial resources, and others are absent here. The reality is that NCC outfits it’s “elite” units better than most as we deploy to the line with ration packs, and are therefore “self-sufficient for 24 hours”. Out in the field, the crew very much is on its own. There is no calling for aerial support, or for additional water, and I am afraid to ask the question about medevacs, mostly because I already know the answer. The country has been introduced to the Incident Command System, but it is still in its fledgling stage as the only noticeable aspects (viewed from the firefighter level) is the initial briefing that we receive upon arrival at an incident and the title “Incident Commander” and some of the other descending positions that are given in an ICS structure. I have noticed that positions such as “Logistics Chief” or “Safety Officer” are rarely present. Perhaps they are there, but I certainly have not seen them. 

The national system of disaster management has made great strides to accommodate ICS, however it will be important to recognize where regional adaptations will need to be made. If there exist cultural or traditional histories that would make more sense to be integrated, then they would be integrated. For example, if Logistics in the American context is not feasible for SA, then those responsibilities must be probably integrated to other positions.

Fireline operations in South Africa brings a unique set of challenges that are fairly different to the US experience. In short, the physical act of firefighting is less extreme, but the logistical support absence adds an external challenging factor. With a constant direct attack approach, in which the firefighter is relatively close to their safety zone, there is reduced risk of an entrapment situation. The relatively rocky terrain and mixed vegetation age class offers opportunities to suppress or escape, if necessary. The packs and tools are significantly lighter, which allows for greater mobility, but are the trade-off for reduced water and food carrying capacity. Staying hydrated on the Western Cape fireline is exceedingly difficult and an operations area that must be focused on for improvement.  On the line, crews must be self-sufficient to a higher degree, operating without significant communication (unless in highly residential areas) and without aircraft. Watching firefighters use a “beater” (stick with rubber flaps) to flap out bushes is really an organic way of stopping a fire. The only thing preventing the fire’s movement are the muscles and tendons of the firefighter standing in front of it. Compared to in the US, heavy machinery is often used (sometimes negligently) to create vast fuel breaks. The use of dozers, chainsaws, and even handline in the US can be more disturbing to the landscape than the actual high-intensity fire. Watching guys in SA put out lines of fire with nothing but grit and eachother is something to be observed.

South Africa is an experiment in humanity. The ideas, inventions, communities, art, governance that have arisen from the African continent’s edge are unique, and it was quite an experience to explore them in great detail. The prevalent histories, migration, cultural patterns, and economy challenged me to understand everyday. Trying to speak Xihosa in an old schoolhouse, or using Zulu to offer rides to grandmas from St. Bernand’s Mission, or questioning why I couldn’t understand the Afrikaaners on the Division.  New ideas and approaches even trickle down to the legislation, and surprisingly a focus of my research. Concept models surrounding Fire Protection Associations and landowner accountability, or a national park fire ecology program that stretches back 75 years. South Africa made my head spin in a lot of ways. 

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