Discover the world of Cape Town's fearless firefighters

The men who march through hell: 
The story of Cape Town’s fearless firefighters

Words: Gordon Laws
Photography: Justin Sullivan

In a place that can – and often does – burst into flames in mere minutes, one group of fearless men and women are the city’s last line of defence, physically halting raging infernos from wreaking untold destruction, and even death, upon Cape Town. In their world you simply can’t break line…

In one of the most fire-prone cities on Earth, a carelessly discarded cigarette can set an entire mountain ablaze. While both man and beast flee for their lives, some men and women march fearlessly in the opposite direction to stand face-to-face with the inferno, defiantly beating back the unbearable furnace. Ivan Johnson is one such man. 

“When you’re actually in the fire, it’s just so f–king hot,” he says. “You can’t believe how hot it actually is. Even if it’s just a few feet high, you can only go for a few seconds. You go in, beat it, you back out and another member of your crew takes your place. You cannot stay there. You will die. Then there’s the smoke, which is worse. There’s no bravado in there. No ‘tough guys’. You go in for as long as you can, get out as quick as you can and go to the back of the line. Get in, get out, go again.”

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Johnson is a member of Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), an organisation of roughly 260 men and women. Their number comprises drivers, logistics organisers, general volunteers, and about 200 firefighters who march – purely voluntarily – into Cape Town’s mountainous nature reserves, to stand face-to-face with out-of-control blazes that can set the night sky alight with their mesmerising, destructive power. Houses, pets, wildlife, people, infrastructure and decades-old plant life are powerless in the face of infernos that, carried by the Cape’s notorious winds and fuelled by her mercilessly dry summers, give the expression “spread like wildfire” its meaning. With tightly compacted housing built well up into the slopes, the constant threat to life and property is very real. When the flames go up, VWS teams mobilise in minutes, day or night. They are literally the last line of defence. A line that simply cannot yield.

According to VWS Newlands Operations Manager Peter Wynne, the organisation battles 25 to 35 wildfires per season, rising to in excess of 45 in a bad year. “It’s difficult to put a number on it, as some fires split into many,” he explains. “Others seem to go out, then spring back to life from the embers, days later.” Alien vegetation can burn as hot as 900°C. Fynbos can reach up to 600. Simply put, Cape mountain fires are no joke.

Raging inferno. A building in Paarl, outside Cape Town, is engulfed by flames

Fit and cheerful, it’s hard to believe Johnson, a 50-year-old, award-winning ad agency owner, is a day over 40. “Everyone needs to make a difference somehow,” he smiles. “I like teamwork, I like a physical challenge and I like discipline.” He speaks as though being on call, 24/7, to march kilometres up burning mountainsides, is a regular kind of “hobby”. Of course, volunteer firefighting is anything but…

A VWS crew is typically seven people, plus a crew leader. Gender is no issue here. “Anyone who can pass our requirements gets on the line,” says Wynne. Crews often hike – at pace – up kilometres of rugged mountain terrain before their shifts (which have been known to last up to 36 hours) even begin. A lookout keeps watch, constantly communicating where the fire is and how it’s moving, while six firefighters and their leader hold the line, smashing back the flames with their “beaters” – crude but effective tools comprising a long handle, ending in a rectangle of heavy-duty rubber strips. Teamwork is everything. Individuals within crews must constantly watch each other’s backs as the fire dances unpredictably around them. Multiple crews attack the fire from different strategic points at once, in a carefully orchestrated assault. Like riflemen from a Civil War-era pitched battle, each firefighter unleashes everything they have, while the one behind recovers and prepares for their next turn on the line. They attack from “the black” – already burnt areas, less likely to erupt into new infernos – navigating treacherous, rocky slopes, embers, and fleeing animals (including deadly snakes), as they push forward.

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According to VWS Newlands Operations Manager Peter Wynne, man is the main cause of Cape Town’s wildfires. “Negligence, the inconsiderate and carelessness are the main causes. Braais and even cigarettes, if conditions are right. In some cases, even arson. Downed power lines can also cause fires. There are some natural causes, though, like lightning, especially in the Boland.”

The black only provides so much cover, though. Especially when the flames are popping up in new areas faster than crews can move. Johnson recalls being trapped on a patch of black, ring-fenced by unburnt terrain, unable to traverse to safety for fear of becoming engulfed by the fire. “There was about 80m of fynbos between us and our vehicle,” he recounts. “A short jog, but that stuff can go up in a heartbeat, and if you’re in the middle of it when it does, that’s it. We were stuck there for hours, waiting for a safe path to the vehicle.”

Even the volunteering process is brutal. Successful applicants are invited to attend initiation days. First there’s a 5km mountain hike in thick clothing, carrying a heavy tool. Johnson made it in 39 minutes. People less than half his age took two hours. Others bowed out along the way. “I couldn’t walk for four days afterwards, but I was very chuffed,” he says, smiling. “Then they showed us all the other things we’d have to learn, like map-reading, GPS, comms, hoses, pumps, the language we use… After that, an intense training programme begins.”

“When you’re actually in a fire, it’s just so hot. You can’t believe how hot it actually is”

Crews often cover kilometres of rugged mountain terrain before their shifts even begin

Fighting the flames from the skies. A plane drops water on an out-of-control fire near the town of Somerset West in the Cape Town Metro

Even their uniforms are overwhelming and stifling. Treated, heavy-duty cotton. Nothing nylon, which can melt onto your skin. An undershirt, covered by a thick, yellow, long-sleeved top. Heavy-duty pants, mountain socks, fire-resistant boots and a “flash hood”. Plus, goggles, helmet, night light, spare batteries and gloves.

“We don’t wear those big suits like the Cape Town Fire Department, with their braces and the jackets and all that,” Johnson adds. “We’ve gotta be able to walk all the way up the mountain, dude! Sometimes, while they guard the structures and houses, we take the hoses up the hill and man them there. It’s extreme hiking and extreme gardening all at once!”Johnson’s first fire happened just after he qualified. After a late night at work, a 5:30am SMS told him to report his ETA and go to Newlands Base. “I leapt out of bed, thinking it was a test,” he recalls. “I geared up and rushed off, expecting them to say, ‘Well done! That was quick!’ But, they were ready to go. Off we rushed to Redhill in Simonstown. I was still in a dwaal. Then I’m out of the van, flash hood on, and in the flippin’ fire, dude. An hour and a half before, I was asleep. I was like, ‘what the f–k am I doing here?’ ha, ha!” 

Amazingly, the VWS have not suffered any serious injuries or deaths during the 69,000 voluntary man-hours since their inception in 1999. Johnson puts it down to intense drilling, teamwork and meticulous safety protocols. “I got a small burn on my arm once,” he chuckles. “I thought an ember had gotten up my sleeve, but it turns out one of my buttons had come undone. The flames are so hot that even that tiny bit of exposed flesh was instantly singed.”

Firefighters battle the flames for hours at a time, often without sleep. There can be no rest until the dangerous flames are brought under control

As for heroics, he’s not after any “tough guy” cred. “We take our phones with us for safety reasons, but we’re forbidden from using them to post things on social media while we’re on duty. It’s ill-disciplined, and distracting,” he explains. “Our mission is not to talk. Just to go and put out the fire.” So why would a man like Johnson, and his 200-odd comrades in arms, put their lives on the line for no money, no fame, and no recognition? “I really wanted to join the army back in the day,” he recalls. “The teamwork, the discipline, the action. 

But I was the reason they had an army back then. I just find firefighting very satisfying. My daughter asks me what I do. She’s five. I tell her I make adverts and she just looks at me; no idea what that is. But I put on my uniform, tell her I’m going to go fight a fire, and she lights up. ‘Daddy, I’m so proud of you!’”

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05 2017 The Red Bulletin

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