Three fires in two hours

October 31, 2008

Three fires in two hours stopped by fast action from ground staff and air support by the KZN Fire Protection Association.

Text and photos by Chris Chapman

Fire two spotted from the road Quick action on fire two

Above left: Fire number two, spotted from the road. Above right: Quick action to get to fire number two.

First at the scene of the fire Maintaining comms with the spotter plane

Above left: First on the scene, Ian attacks the fire. Above right: Scott (left) maintains comms with the spotter plane.

Fire two under control Fire dampened

Above left: Fire number two under control. Above right: Making fire number three safe.


On a peaceful, sunny Thursday morning in early September I took a drive out to Donnybrook, near Bulwer, to visit a forester who wanted to show me how he is using his Yamaha Rhino 660cc quadbike for forestry work.

As soon as I arrived at Ian Crouch's house on Sappi's Comrie plantation, I could tell that he's an adventurous kind of a guy. In the yard, parked next to the Rhino, was a microlight, and in the store room was an off-road motorbike.

Ian has been with Five Star Timber Contracting for two years, doing silviculture work at Comrie. He told me that he gets a vehicle allowance, and so he bought the Rhino second-hand to save costs. The Rhino, which meets Sappi's strict safety regulations as it has all the safety features including roll-bar and safety belts, gets Ian around the estate at a fraction of the cost of using his bakkie.

It's a 4x4 so it goes anywhere, and has a bin at the back which can fit stuff like water knapsacks for firebreak burning. It can take a passenger, so Ian often takes his supervisor along to discuss jobs that need doing around the plantation.

Petrol consumption is very economical, and a new tyre costs R250 vs about R1 200 for a bakkie tyre.

Before we even got a chance to put the Rhino through its paces, the radio crackled into life – a fire had been spotted in a young pine compartment on Comrie.

"Sorry," said Ian, "gotta go."

This was a job for the bakkie. As Ian reversed out the garage I hopped into the passenger seat, camera in hand. No ways I'm going to miss the action.

By the time we got there the Five Star ground crew had more or less contained the fire. Ian's colleague Scott Nicholson was on the scene and was in contact with the KZN FPA spotter plane which was already circling overhead. Two bombers swooped in to drop their load over the fire as a precaution. It was in a young pine compartment that had been pruned, so there was a lot of fuel on the ground and nobody was taking any chances. It was a hot, dry day with an Orange 68 FDI rating, but luckily the wind wasn't too strong.

Just when we thought the danger had passed, Scott's radio crackled again. It was the spotter pilot – there was another fire a couple of hundred yards further up the valley, still in the pine.

Scott and Ian were barking orders. A skeleton crew was assigned to guard fire number one, and the rest of us sped up the road to find fire number two. It was about 50 yards from the road down a steep hill. Luckily it was close enough for the hoses from Scott and Ian's bakkie sakkies to reach. They were on the scene in minutes dousing the fire and trying to avoid the smoke which was rolling up the hill in thick, suffocating clouds.

The rest of the Five Star fire crew started to arrive and the fire was quickly brought under control. There was so much going on that I can't even remember if the firebombers dropped a load on it. I don't think so.

We staggered up the hill to get a drink of water, and then the spotter pilot started barking into Scott's radio again. Another fire, a bit further up the valley, in a gum jungle on a steep slope.

No – not again! Same story. Leave a crew behind to guard fire number two, mad scramble up the road to find fire number three. Again Scott and Ian are first on the scene. It's too far from the road to reach with the hoses – Scott orders the crew in with knapsacks. The bombers are back with a fresh tank of water and Scott instructs them to douse this fire, which looks dangerous. Two loads on our heads. The water brings cool relief to the intense heat and once again the fire is contained. By this time the crew are here with knapsacks, rakes and bowsaws to clear a small break around the fire to prevent it from spreading. The water bombers have done the trick and the danger has passed.

We trudge back up the hill to the bakkies, slurp water, and wait for the damn radio to start barking at us again. But it doesn't. It's all over, bar the shouting. Plans are made to watch the still smouldering fires for the rest of the day.

I ask Ian what could have started those fires. He shrugs! Looks like arson. Someone walking up the valley lighting fires. What else could it have been? Plans are made to have a meeting with members of the local community on the weekend to discuss the situation.

Ian and I head back to his house. Just another day in the life of a South African forester.

Published in September/October 2008

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