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Fighting Fires

June 6, 2004

I live in Cape Town, a city built between a chain of mountains – the Table Mountain chain – and the sea. Most of the chain, from Cape Point to Devil’s Peak, is national park, and home to a very wide variety of plant life – some of it found no where else in the world. Table Mountain is part of the Fynbos floral kingdom, the smallest and most biodiverse in the world.

The national park is very vulnerable to fire. Cape Town is a winter rainfall region, which means that summers are hot and dry. Fynbos burns easily, and needs to burn from time to time to release seeds and destroy old growth. But it burns much to often, because of the high density human population. Hikers building fires, drivers flicking cigarette butts out of windows, broken glass concentrating sunlight – all these things start fires which threaten not only the plant and animal life, but the developments that march arrogantly up the mountain slopes.

After the catastrophic fires of 2000, a volunteer fire fighters’ unit was formed by the park, and manned by civlians concerned by the danger to the park. I joined the unit and was trained in using pumps and hoses, knot work, first aid, orienteering, working with helicopters and abseiling. I spent Thursday and Friday last week fighting my first fire.

The day of the fire was a strange day. We awoke to unseasonably hot, dry weather – it’s close to midwinter and the temperature was 28 degrees centigrade. It made me think of The Day after Tomorrow, the disaster movie on climate change I had seen a few days previously. While the film no doubt exagerrates the likely consequences of climate change, there certainly is something wrong with the weather.

Winds of up to 40 km/h fanned a blaze that spent through the park and
threatened houses in Glencairn, on the False Bay coast. Our unit, along with city firemen and amateur and professional fire fighters from as far away as Swellendam, climbed the mountain to tackle the fire. Being so close to this raging destrustion was humbling – the heat was so intense, and the smoke so thick, that I could only stay on the fire line for around 30 seconds at a time, before having to retreat to somewhere cooler to get a few lungfuls of fresh air before going in again – this despite protective equipment.

In the end the fire was too intense for our efforts and we guided air force helicopters in on water drops, agonising when they missed and cheering when a bucket of sea water extinguished a part of the fire. Despite the tragedy of the situation – kilometres of fynbos reduced to ashy sand dunes, and the burnt out shells of tortoises too slow to escape the heat – there was something thrilling and beautiful about being so close to the awesome element of fire in all its glory. Watching huge sheets of flame change colour and shape as they twisted up into the night sky was mesmerising. But perhaps the most beautiful was looking back down the mountain at the scorched earth, still glowing orange. As the wind blew, glowing embers rolled and bounced along the ground, looking like salamanders or strange fire drakes escaping a sulphurous and sepulchral waste land.

We stayed on the mountain until about 9 at night, then came down to sleep and get up for a dawn assault on the blaze. But the temperature had dropped in the night, and the wind direction changed, so the fire had for the most part burnt itself out. We spent the morning skirting the fire line, burying smouldering embers and surveying the damage.

For some one who spends too much time in his head, reading or writing, the adrenaline flow of fire fighting really made me feel alive. About a month ago, I had a profound experience with fire when I was chosen to be fire keeper at a sweat lodge, and last week’s confrontation with the element really stirred my. Fire for me symbolises by passion, belief and engagement with the world – something I feel has been rekindled by this experience.

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