State pitches in on fires

Commercial farmers often complain the state doesn’t do anything for them. But as Mike Burgess discovered, Zastron farmers are using a fully trained, government-funded Working on Fire fire fighting team – and all they had to do was ask.
Issue date : 10 July 2009

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Commercial farmers often complain the state doesn’t do anything for them. But as Mike Burgess discovered, Zastron farmers are using a fully trained, government-funded Working on Fire fire fighting team – and all they had to do was ask.

Farmers in Zastron in the Free State applied in 2006 for fire fighting assistance, says Kobus Breytenbach, local farmer and manager of Zastron’s Working on Fire (WoF) base. The district was a high-risk zone for veld fires due to the large communities along the nearby border between Lesotho and the Eastern Cape, like the Sterkfontein area, as well as the close proximity to the major N6 route linking East London to Bloemfontein.

The benefit for farmers
“The establishment of the WoF team in Zastron shows that farmers can demand a better situation for themselves from government structures,” says Kobus. He explains that in the past, too few labourers often meant too few hands to combat fires.
But now farmers have trained, fully equipped and mobile fire fighters on standby 24 hours a day, which they can deploy when smoke is detected. This leaves them to deal with other issues like the removal of stock from the fire’s path before joining the team.
Furthermore, the team has specialised equipment including a Samil 4×4 military vehicle for transport.

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During inactive periods, the team is kept busy by operations like the removal of alien vegetation on farms to reduce the risk of runaway blazes. In addition to the fire fighters, there’s a truck driver, two experienced crew leaders, a store manager and the base manager, Kobus.The Fire Protection Association (FPA) is responsible for the running costs of the base, including fuel to reach fires in the district. But Kobus explains it’s a small price to pay when you’re about to lose your last grazing in a tough, dry winter.

The benefit for locals
The new WoF team in Zastron represents not only a new era in fire fighting for the district, but also opportunities for unemployed residents to generate income and acquire skills. Individuals with a minimum education of a grade 12 pass are selected from the local community to go to the WoF headquarters in Nelspruit, to undergo basic fire fighting training.

They are also introduced to various skills development programmes, including in agriculture. After a few weeks, aspiring fire fighters return to Zastron to do duty under two-year, government-paid fire fighting contracts. Many of the fire fighters have since been involved in combating fires in Clarens, Qwa Qwa and Senekal as well as Zastron. The two crew leaders, Abiel Mofokeng and Stephen Mokoena, are originally from the eastern Free State and joined the WoF programme in 2004 after seeing an advert. By the time of going to print, Abiel will have moved to another Free State WoF team.

“We started out as fire fighters, but we are now level 1 crew leaders,” Abiel says. This upward mobility allows dedicated fire fighters to make a career of the programme, explains Thabo Moiloa, the regional WoF manager of central Free State. “I was also initially a fire fighter in Qwa Qwa, then a team leader, and this year I became a regional manager. Now I do a lot more paperwork and travel to check that teams are well-managed.”

Discipline and fitness
The crew leaders live on the base, keeping the team disciplined, fit and motivated for deployment. “The discipline is good – anyone absent for more than three days is dismissed,” says Stephen. He explains that fitness is crucial and the team has to adhere to a stringent regime. The most physically challenging fire he’s ever been involved in was in the Western Cape. “It was a fynbos fire where we spent seven days in the mountains.”

A win-win situation
Both team leaders agree that the real value of the WoF programme lies in its win-win formula – farmers and unemployed locals both benefit. It’s already changed the lives of a number of people like Sedatsatsi Mpoho, a young mother of one. “I heard about this poverty alleviation programme, and I was not working. That’s why I came here. At least I have a job and the certificates will help me,” she says.
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The origins of the Working on Fire programme

The multi-partner, government-funded Working on Fire (WoF) programme was launched in 2003. It offers an integrated approach to combating fires through training fire fighting crews, which can be based locally and deployed nationally in crises. WoF also encourages the creation of Fire Protection Associations (FPAs) to ensure an organised and integrated approach to combating veld fires in rural areas.
The organisation initially came from within the structures of the Forest Fire Association (FFA) which got the tender from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) to establish a strategy to fight veld fires.