Trevor Abrahams: Working on Fire doing its bit

By Trevor Abrahams, Managing Director of Working On Fire (WoF)

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a landmark report last week calling for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

Canadian researchers have also highlighted the growing challenge of wildland fires globally, concluding that the last decade saw the worst records in eight successive years for wildland fires across the globe.

Meanwhile in the Western Cape, the Department Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, and the Expanded Public Works Programme funded Working on Fire (WoF) programme has attended some 70 fires already in the current summer fire season (1 December 2021 to date).

The UNEP report produced by more than 50 international researchers, including South Africans, estimates that the risk worldwide of highly devastating fires could increase by up to 57 percent by the end of the century, primarily because of the rate of global climate change.

The report calls for governments to dramatically shift their approach to preventing, rather than only focusing on fighting, fires, which they said would be more effective.

“There isn’t the right attention to fire from governments,” according to fire expert at the University of Cape Town and an author of the report Glynis Humphrey.

“We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change”, cautions Humphrey.

For the past 18 years, Working On Fire holds a proud record of contributing to combatting an average of 2 500 wildland fires annually in South Africa. Significantly, Working On Fire’s overall strategy has been to apply the principles of integrated fire management in order to reduce the frequency and impact of uncontrolled veld fires, in coherence with the UN report which recommends “two-thirds of spending in planning, prevention, preparedness and recovery, with one-third spent on response.”

Over almost two decades, WoF has worked consistently to create communities that are fire resilient by implementing Integrated Fire Management (IFM) principles. Given the fact that over 90 percent of unwanted fires are caused by human negligence, fire awareness education is a key principle of IFM. WoF hence devotes considerable amount of resources to education in fire prone communities, fuel load reduction through controlled burning and constructing fire breaks, early detection and rapid deployment.

The Fire Awareness Education Programme is directed at all sectors of our fire prone communities, especially children. It combines environmental education, fire and life safety education and disaster risk assessment and mitigation.

WoF recruits and trains young men and women from across South Africa, with a strong focus on marginalized communities. There are currently more than 5000 participants in the programme, 94% of whom are youth, 31% women (the highest level in any comparable fire service in the world) and 3% with disabilities.

WoF has trained and empowered firefighters to conduct and facilitate lessons for learners and educators, as well as community outreach activities. In addition, research is ongoing to ensure content, methodologies and techniques are current and relevant to local communities.

The UNEP report also recommends that governments collaborate with other countries with expertise in fire management.

WoF has over the years deployed firefighting teams to assist Chile, Indonesia and on four occasions, Canada. In its last deployment to Manitoba, Canada in August-September 2021, the Manitoba Minister for Climate and Conservation issued personal letters of appreciation to each of the 109 WoF personnel for serving with distinction in assisting their counterparts in Manitoba in containing the wildfires in the region.

In its fourth quarter edition 2021, the International Association of Wild Fire Magazine quotes a press release by the Manitoba government thanking the South African firefighters:

“The minister noted these firefighters were welcomed to the communities and brought professionalism and dedication to their jobs, as well as great team spirit shown through their colourful marching, chanting and singing at Richardson International Airport in Winnipeg upon their arrival, and when moving through the communities where they were deployed.”

All of this indicates that this was by far one of the most successful international deployments and indeed a huge vote of confidence for WoF. These young men and women represented our country with pride and dignity, their work ethic, professionalism, and fitness levels are highly regarded in Canada. It was a wonderful experience to see how they managed to work seamlessly alongside firefighting authorities from Manitoba Wildfire Services.

Aerial firefighting

An indispensable component to its firefighting success lies in WoF’s aerial firefighting capacity. While aerial resources are not a silver bullet and cannot extinguish fires as a stand-alone resource, they are an essential element of fire suppression activities in support of ground teams. Strategically targeted water drops cool the fire-line and enable ground teams to move in and snuff the flames.

WoF’s aerial firefighting partner is Kishugu Aviation. For the current summer season to date, 25 Kishugu aircraft supplied to WoF and other partners have flown 620 hours as part of efforts to contain fires.

The prediction for the future is grim in that the threat of wildland fires are likely to get worse. The time for preparation is now.

Opinion article first published in City Press, Sunday 20 March 2022.