A long line of fire stretches out. The fight will be over by the morning, so for now, we take a moment. A tactical pause.

Temperatures of the preceding few days have been exceedingly hot, with no precipitation. The conditions are high risk.

Any ignition, under current fire potential, will spiral beyond the control of initial attack.

But the crew is ready.

The guys have been training feverishly for days since their last stint. 

Through squad jogs, soccer, and weightlifting, everyone is keen to stay active while they wait.  

Their minds and muscles are recovered and sharp for another

A headlamp. A pair of worn gloves. A yellow hard hat. One flash hood. A jacket for the cold night. A set of dusty goggles. A ration pack with corned beef, snacks, energy powder, and protein shake mix. Four insufficient litres of water. And tools: a beater (a broom handle with rubber strips at the end), rake-hoes (McCleods), garden hoes, and maybe, a silky saw. It is possible that a small Stihl saw will make it to the fireline as well. 

These ten items encompass the complete toolkit available to an individual as they sustain themselves to engage in rigorous fire suppression for 12-36 hours. Tools will be exchanged as the fire progress, in case anyone wants to take over. Ration items will be traded, like they always are, as everyone has their preferred go-to items.

The call comes in. There is a wildfire burning in challenging terrain, posing threats endangered vegetation. One home has already burnt. More are possible.

The crew arrives at dusk. The briefing outlines the basics: topography is steep and rocky, overnight temperatures will be 30ºC, the wind could die down after midnight.

The atmosphere is unstable and winds are squirrelly, with fire fronts changing direction unpredictably.

Progress is made, only to be lost at the whim of the wind. 

"The fire is running away from us now, it knows we will kill it"

With direct attack, the confrontation between nature and man is close. Flame and muscle take their turns until both are exhausted and burnt out. Its fluidity is almost poetic.

The crew presses forward. Using their "beaters", often in unison, to suppress active fire. Their method is to starve the flames of oxygen, then move any smoldering fuel into burned areas.

Night comes, and firefighters climb upslope. Extinguishing the flames while searching for the next foothold. The scramble is on.

"Are you fit enough? The fire is in the heavens"  

Photo - Greg Jones

A line of light illuminates the task in front of us, it serves as the only distinction between starry night and rocky mountain.

The wind makes a push, and the fire behavior exceeds the capacity of men. They pull back to watch.

Then, they reengage. Some locals arrive and begin throwing rocks at the fire. After a brief firefighter consultation, they switch away from this tactic. 

The fire slows as nighttime moisture rises.

Dawn breaks.

Progress is visible. But the fire stretches out, ready to be warmed by the rising sun

But first, breakfast. 

Fire, with no where to run,  heats up the crew's corned beef. Alas, some have managed to save their porridge for this moment.

The fire starts to slip away in as the morning air heats. This time, it won't gain momentum - firefighters halt its progress. 

As other parts of the fire continue to blaze, nature's mechanism's are underway. By the time the order comes  to hike off, protea winged seeds are already beginning to spread in the wind. 

Some juvenile plants, unable to have mature cones, will perish without opportunity to release their seeds.

Fire plays a crucial, regenerative role in fynbos ecosystems. However its balance is crucial, too much fire and the land will degrade into flammable alien weeds. Too little, and the fynbos will overgrow and burn severely - sterilizing the soil. 

During the hike-off, the crew discovers available water and they restore their canteens. Many have been without water for hours.

Pick up is delayed. Many catch-up on sleep, others sit and watch as the fire's other flank blows out.

When the crew is extracted. the singing and revelry will commence. Another shift completed, and the work done well.

At base, the men eat and rest. The next one could come at anytime.

Either in the U.S or in South Africa, wildland firefighting seems to elicit certain personalities. Those that are passionate about working in dynamic environments under stressful conditions. An appreciation for unpredictability, but a need for personal and team resiliency. Often working situations far from the public eye, wildland firefighters remove the hazards of wildfire from a common social conscience. As a result of successful work, their importance and skill may be undervalued, and their support network non-existent.

South Africa, not unlike the US, champions the work of their wildland firefighters when their success is on display - following a large campaign fire, or the loss of life during an incident. Political and social narratives are slow to recognize the symbolic and literal voids that fire practitioners fill: the frictional space between a degraded or volatile environment and inwardly-focused society.

In a region of special floristic diversity, conservation receives a high priority as fire management sets objectives based upon vegetation age-class and conservation status. Non-intrusive methods of firefighting are used and ecological values are more equitable to social ones. In numerous situations, South Africa's strong environmentalism benefits wildland firefighter operations as landowners are obliged to construct firebreaks and manage fuel loads. No argument made be made for US homeowners as cultural narratives on private property prevent mechanisms for wildfire accountability. 

The intrinsic skills that fire practitioners compile - understanding of fuels and fire behavior, about fire weather, risks of firefighting, and burn operations- are not often professionally recognized. South Africa is not alone in undervaluing the experiential and technical knowledge necessary to understand fire, its movements and controls. In many cases, on-the-ground experience may struggle to percolate up the chain of command, as significant support deficiencies exist. Without professional recognition of fire practitioners, the sector as a whole may struggle to adapt and manage future projections for wildfire.

Wildfire operations are indicative of the social and environmental paradigms within a nation. 

For South Africa, both the nation's progressive environmentalism and historic social inequalities are apparent on the fireline. 

This scenario is not endemic to South Africa, as similarities persist in other nations. A common theme throughout a tour of fire management microcosms revealed that wildland firefighters and, as a profession are largely unrecognized for the place they fill in human-environmental relations.

Holistic, proactive wildfire concerns will not be solved through an unrecognized workforce. The accumulation of fire knowledge - its ecology, behavior, management, and human dimensional challenges - is a slow process that largely occurs through experiential learning. The type of work necessary to untangle wildfire challenges draws strong, passionate personalities; however the absence of social recognition and support undermines their ability to persist in the sector. The seasonal nature of wildfires has often solicited the concept that a standing, professional workforce is not necessary. As wildfires seasons persist beyond their historical boundaries, an equally consistent body of fire professionals is necessary. These practitioners are needed to not only manage wildfires during their peaks, but to mitigate their impacts during the valleys. A long-term, strategic solution to wildfires may require a long-term, available body of career professionals. 

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