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Smoke Visible - GO! The Western Cape Ready For Fire Season

By Rob Russell Photos Rayno Snyman

November traditionally heralds the start of the summer fire season, in the Western Cape. The Western Cape Disaster Management Centre took the opportunity to host various organisations, at Stellenbosch airfield, to set out their plans for the coming season and how they intend to deal with any fires that break out.

Ettiene du Toit, from the Western Cape Disaster Management Centre, and programme director, welcomed all to the function and handed the floor over to the first speaker.

Mr Graham Paulse, Head of the Department, welcomed everyone and gave a brief description of the role of the Management Centre and where it all fits into local Government.

He then handed the floor over to Mr Anton Bredell, Minister of Local Government for Environmental Affairs. The Minister thanked everyone for their attendance and said that with much planning that had been going on, since April of this year, when the previous season ended, the Province had their plans in place and was ready to deal with the fire season.

He stated that whilst it was not pleasant to see fynbos burning, it was important to remember that to sustain the fynbos and ensure healthy growth, it has to burn occasionally. That is how nature works and we cannot change that. He said, based on talks with the Weather Office and stats taken over the past winter, the season was expected to be a tough and busy one. Winter rainfall was well below the yearly averages and the veld in the Western Cape is very dry. This created the ideal situation for high fire risk and the outbreak of many fires.

He went on to describe how they had developed a plan for each season, Stats from the previous year, as well as the past 10 years, were taken into account, creating an integrated wildfire system, ensuring the necessary skills and personnel were ready, trained and prepared.

Various organisations are involved in the planning and fighting of fires and some of the major role players included:

  • City of Cape Town

  • SA National Parks

  • Cape Winelands, Overberg and all municipalities in the Western Cape

  • Cape Nature

  • Table Mountain Parks

  • Working on Fire

  • Leading Edge Aviation

In addition, there were 2000 volunteers, who had been trained this season, The Minister had a special word of thanks for these people and the efforts and time they give. The Minister stated the local Government was proud of past successes, and despite these, there was no time to be complacent and there was a need to stay focused. The local Government had ensured there was sufficient funding available for all parties.

Mr Anton Bredell emphasized the importance of reporting any fires as soon as you observe them, It was important for all Municipalities to make known their emergency numbers and to encourage people to report fires without delay. He stated that 90 % of fires reported last year, were successfully bought under control within the first hour. This was due to the public reporting fires, early and to the correct role players.

The Province had concluded contracts with Working on Fire, the major role player, which included ground support, staff and equipment, but also the use of 20 of their aircraft. These being

  • 8 Spotter aircraft

  • 4 Air Tractor water bombers

  • 8 Huey helicopters

In addition, three helicopters, from Leading Edge Aviation were available, including their very impressive and effective Blackhawk Helicopter.

The main base for aircraft operations is Stellenbosch Airfield, but the majority of the aircraft were spread out around the Province, ensuring efficient use of them and also the ability to move the aircraft around quickly and effectively, should the need arise. The Minster finished by thanking all involved and wished everyone a safe and incident-free fire fighting season.

Graham Paulse thanked the Minister for his speech and handed the floor over to Trevor Abrahams, CEO of Working on Fire

Trevor thanked the Minister for the invitation to address the gathering and went on to speak of the importance of the partnerships that had been created by the local Government and the need for them. He emphasized the need for effective, proper planning and readiness to be able to fight any fires that broke out. This collaboration at all levels is very important.

He announced that Working on Fire was busy concluding a 5-year contract with the local Government. This had many advantages, being primarily

  • Better planning

  • A proper and effective strategy to deal with fires at all levels and the whole area

  • Better coordination between all parties

He ended by wishing everyone a safe fire season

The event was concluded by Colin Deiner, Chief Director, of Disaster Management and Fire services of the Western Cape.

He went on to discuss the importance of proactive planning for such a season, Mention was made of very limited funding and resources forthcoming from Central Government and the need for Provinces to plan, budget and manage everything themselves. He stated that sufficient funds had been budgeted for the season, planning had been ongoing since the end of the last season and how important this was; He finished by thanking everyone involved in the planning, all the various role players involved in this season and he too, wished everyone a safe fire season.

Mr Ettiene du Toit then asked all present to proceed outside to watch various role players giving a display,

This display included a march past of WOF members and various volunteers, as well as some of the ground support vehicles they used, It concluded with a water bombing by the Leading Edge Blackhawk and a WOF fire bomber.

It was very evident to Flightline Weekly that the Province had put in an immense effort, especially on the planning and budget sides, to ensure all logistical support and such services were ready for the fire season, which extends up to the end of March.

After the event Flightline Weekly was invited by Mark Jackson, of Leading Edge Aviation, to have a look over the pride of their fleet – the Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter.

Some of the advantages Mark pointed out, were:

  • The speed of the helicopter, compared to a Huey, enables it to get to the fire much quicker and start combating the fire.

  • The Blackhawk is a 2 pilot operation. This had many advantages over the single pilot operation on the Huey, primarily being they can operate for up to 10 hours and can extend that duty time, subject to certain conditions, where the single pilot operation in a Huey is limited to 8 hours duty, In cases of really big fires the extra pilot greatly enhances safety and the helicopter can be better utilised.

  • The size of the Bambi bucket. It can carry 3,5 tonnes of water, however, based on their own experiences, as well as other Blackhawk operators around the world, of which there are 300 in use fighting fires, the most effective load was 2,5 tonnes. This ensured a fast turnaround time from picking up water to dropping it, as well as the most economical flight operations. Less stress was put on the engines flying such a load. It was possible to dump up to 45 tonnes per hour.

  • The cost per drop, of a load using the bigger Bambi bucket of the Blackhawk compared to the Huey, means that the cost efficiency saving equates to about R1 for every litre of water dropped.

  • The Blackhawk has no crosswind limitations, unlike the Hueys, so it can operate in any weather and wind speeds, also greatly assisting in extinguishing fires.

  • The Blackhawk is designed for the American Armed Forces, and was designed to be repaired “in the field of operation”. This means that it is possible to carry out running repairs, whilst on task and not having to return to base to get faults attended to. Allied to this, Leading Edge deploys a tanker and ground personnel closer to the fire area, to enable faster refuelling of the helicopter and repairs of minor faults, greatly enhancing time spent fighting the fire,

There is no doubt it is a very impressive and effective helicopter when it comes to firefighting.



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