Fire protection, community style

August 17, 2017

Gilbert Plant visiting wattle growers Mrs Mbanjwa and Bongani Phama in Ozwathini.

By Gilbert Plant

'If you're not here for profit or for fun, what the hell are you doing here?'

That's a quote from a book on management entitled 'Up The Organisation' written by Robert Townsend, who made the Avis car hire company so successful. It's on my list of required reading for managers, and it is crammed with down-to-earth truths and advice on effective management. It's also fun to read.

Unless we're lucky or clever enough to make our living from an intense passion, we can't really expect our chosen career always to be profitable AND fun, but at least enjoying it is fair compensation. In rural communities (where corporate rules and constraints belong far away in another world) things are done differently. Time has more flexible boundaries. The neighbours include anyone living within ten kilometres or more. Everyone knows everyone else. Verbal agreements are the norm. Negotiations are mostly polite and relaxed. Courtesy and consideration form the threads that run through the fabric of society. Here, Ubuntu is not just a concept – it is manifested by the community. It's not utopia, but working in this environment is a pleasure, so it often is fun.

For the last seven years, I've been involved in the fire protection programme at Ozwathini, a typical tribal area between Kranskop and Greytown in the KZN midlands. Many of the residents have small one or two hectare plots where they grow wattle or gum, selling their timber through NCT and wattle bark to UCL.

The programme started with identifying the placement of strategic fire-breaks that covered the area as a whole, with input from the community, whether timber growers or not, and a map showing these and various high risk areas. The basic knapsacks and beaters were donated at moderate expense. A timber grower with the requisite facilities stores the sprayers during the safe season, and services them before distributing them to various homesteads in the winter. Essential maintenance has been taught to large numbers of the users (including their older school children). Beaters, likewise, are kept at the homesteads.

Community members burning fire breaks in Ozwathini.

The next step was the burning. Since the benefit of this is the safety of the landscape and its people, any work is understood to be voluntary and unpaid, and the izinduna arrange the manpower. The problem with this (at first) was that the strong young men needed to carry the knapsack sprayers were conspicuous by their absence: we looked like a platoon of veterans from World War 1 doing a fire drill! However since an army marches on its stomach, sponsored refreshments from the local store/tavern began to attract more able-bodied volunteers.

The system, theoretically, is for the inhabitants to act for their own area, but since these overlap and the team is on the go anyway, the work simply follows its course across boundaries. This occasionally provokes good-natured exchanges with property owners along the way who are not participating: "Woza-bo! Thatha isibulo! Angiyona 'uboyi' wakho!" (Come! Take a beater! I'm not your 'boy'!)

One of the obstacles to achieving thorough fire protection for the entire area is multiple land use, with many small patches of grass, particularly adjacent to dwellings and crop lands, that are simply too numerous and time-consuming to burn. Two or more years of not being burnt creates a highly volatile fuel load, which in proximity to a dwelling is an extremely dangerous potential fire source.

Where no belt exists between this rank growth (qubula) and the area to be protected, progress slows to about one metre of flame at a time. Without water, such burning is arduous, time consuming, and really risky. However, the need for even a minimal cleared belt is being increasingly appreciated these days, so the problem is diminishing. Indeed, the principal of 'no belt, no burn' has had to be applied.

Speaking of water, this is not the land of 10 000 litre tankers, proto teams, huge reservoirs and high-pressure filling points. It's the land of seriously steep terrain with tortuous narrow roads and ruts deep enough to hide a goat, ending at a spring or stream where water is collected in 20 litre containers. There is water reticulation in parts, but it is frequently empty.

Collecting water by hand.

But things are changing. A 500l bakkie-sakkie acquired last season under the Landscape Certification project with NCT catapaulted this critical operation into the new century with mobile low volume, high pressure amandla. The guys from World War 1 love it.

This season a similar unit, as well as knapsack sprayers, have been made available through the GEF 5 uMgungundlovu Municipal Land Use Project to the communities in the Mathuleni and Sibongile areas adjoining Ozwathini. The combined areas total some 7000ha, so although two 500l units don't seem to amount to adequate capacity, they contribute significantly to increasing the extent and efficacy of pre-fire season protection measures, as well as being the local rapid response facility.

Sprayer equipment helps keep the firebreak burning process safer.

Multiple land use, by its nature, tends to limit uncontrolled spread of fire, so these small machines will demonstrate their worth by limiting losses that might be sustained by individuals or small groups.

Annual burning affords a rewarding training opportunity. Surprisingly for a rural community, there is often limited knowledge of fire behaviour and burning techniques (and a few frightening misconceptions). Some have never seen the standard fire knapsack and lance. On-the-job instruction during pre-season burning rapidly changes that. The effects of the work are immediate, people are empowered. Being told on one occasion by a grower that I was now redundant was very gratifying! A significant benefit of doing it yourself is the heightened awareness generated and carried back to family and neighbour. Past incidents of major fires are recalled, many comments noting that these disastrous events are now far less likely.

On one occasion, a wildfire following the exact course of a disastrous fire that occurred in a previous season, petered out on a recently completed 30 metre belt, to the immense relief of the ladies in nearby homesteads watching helplessly as the flames raced towards them.

Several years ago, we arranged with Working on Fire to assist with the season's fire protection. Not for nothing are these fire fighters worthy of being flown all the way to Canada when things got out of control there. They are real professionals. As disciplined as the best military, they don't walk, they march; they're as fit as athletes; their boots are polished, uniforms pressed. And they really know their stuff. The trouble with people like this is that they're so efficient and effective that the community tends to step back and let them get on with it! Not a good idea, as it works against the aim of self-sufficiency, but it was a wonderful display of the remarkable capacity we have in our country.

Going back to the joys of working in rural communities, there's a Zulu proverb: "Akundhlul' indhl' akhiwe". The literal translation is 'one doesn't pass by a built house', but this only makes sense if the allegory is understood. What it means is that hospitality is always offered to those passing by, and even if not every Zulu knows the proverb (for the language has a rich store of them), the spirit of it pervades pretty well universally. A cup of tea or a meal is frequently offered, or home-grown fruit or vegetables spontaneously given. To sit in the home of a man who lives a simple, uncomplicated life far removed from sophisticated urban trappings, congenially discussing any subject under the sun is one of the real pleasures of this kind of work. Expect to be teased sometimes, or to hear some interesting perceptions of your culture or race, but know that you wouldn't be sitting there if there was not a bond of mutual respect and friendship.

Oh, and another thing: if the tea is being made over an open fire in the centre of the room, don't worry about the smoke; it adds atmosphere to the occasion and you'll get used to it! An induna I once had an appointment with took me along to share the meat of a goat his neighbour had slaughtered. The neighbour, when told that the induna would be bringing a white man with him, exclaimed: "How is this mlungu going to sit in a smoke-filled hut?" To which the response was: "Doesn't he burn firebreaks with us?"

The goat was delicious.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, June 2017

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