In June this year, devastating fires laid waste to the Western Cape, particularly in the towns of Knysna and neighbouring Plettenberg Bay, where homes were destroyed and residents were displaced. All South Africans responded to the disaster with urgent assistance and much-needed moral support. Meet three brave women who were at the forefront of the firefighting/ relief efforts.
The Knysna fires were devastating. Hectares of forest and fynbos were destroyed, while hundreds of homes in the town itself were gutted. Over five days at the beginning of June this year, almost a thousand firefighters, emergency workers and community leaders battled to save the town. Seven people lost their lives, but in the true spirit of ubuntu, South Africans around the country sent aid and assistance to the area, to help residents rebuild their lives.
Three remarkable women were at the forefront of efforts, all heroes who responded with courage and compassion in the aftermath. These are their stories.
Candace Myers, Knysna community leader
A lifelong resident of the area, Candace Myers has seen her fair share of fires in the highly volatile natural environment, but the June fires were something different. She told Marie Claire magazine: “It was like another planet… [over] five days, I’d experienced emotions I haven’t had in 50 years of my life.”
Myers acted as a co-ordinator between ground forces and the town council’s disaster management team. “There [have] always [been] fires and we always know that somehow these things are taken care of… but sitting in the ops room with the disaster team that Wednesday afternoon, I felt absolute fear in the pit of my stomach. This fire was out of control and we didn’t have enough firemen and expertise. Our town was in flames,” she said.
She co-ordinated communications with rescue workers, making sure the teams could fight the fires on all fronts. “[When cell phone reception] went down and we didn’t have communication with our family or anyone else,” she said, “I suddenly felt sort of alone… but we just had to hold out hope that somehow the people… were getting the help they needed. We spent the whole night helping wherever we could.”
Myers also helped the relief work as the fires raged and residents were evacuated. She saw firsthand how devastating the fires were, but also how the community came together to help each other: “Members of the public were helping evacuate residents, everyday heroes pulling together and saving each other.”
Cwayita Runeli, SANParks ranger
Cwayita Runeli is a South African National Parks (SANParks) ranger with firefighting training, and was one of only two female SANParks rangers in the thick of the action during the Knysna fires. There are a number of important nature reserves in the area, which is rich in fauna and flora (including volatile fynbos), and it was important that SANParks did everything in its power to minimise the damage.
“I feel scared every time I fight fires,” Runeli told Marie Claire. “Anything can happen.” Though used to seeing out-of-control bush fires, Knysna was a shock to her. “When we were sent to Brenton On Sea (a coastal hamlet outside Knysna), it was my first time in such a huge fire. I’d never seen anything like it.” The fire itself was an ocean, she said, “that’s how the flames moved through the fynbos. Those plants hadn’t burned in over 15 years… even the sound of the fire was like a rumbling ocean. The crashing waves. The sky was dark, the smoke everywhere.”
Duty however, was foremost on her mind. “I told myself [that] I have to save these lives. I knew exactly what to do… I know about the fire. I [had] to help them.” And she had something to prove.
“People say that ladies can’t fight the fires. But I know that I can do anything the men can do. There is nothing that can stop me. People used to say that my body is too small, I’m too thin – all those things. But I told them that it doesn’t matter what [my] body is like – if [I] did the training, [I] can do the job. If you tell yourself that you can do it, you can. And I did.”
While the devastation was immense, Runeli is confident that SANParks did its best to save what it could and is now dedicated to reviving this important natural ecosystem to its former glory.
Marlene Boyce, Director of Planning, Knysna Municipality
As the Knysna fires raged, South Africans around the country – and indeed the world – did not just stand back and watch. Thousands of donations of food, clothing and other necessities flooded into the town, to be distributed to those affected by the disaster. Marlene Boyce, the director of planning and development in the Knysna Municipality, was in charge of co-ordinating the distribution, making sure the needs of the community were met.
In addition, her planning department also compiled vital data needed to begin recovery from the fires and rebuild the area. It’s a job that continues long after the last flames have been put out.
The future of the town and its people were foremost on her mind, even in the midst of the confusion brought on by the disaster. “[While] the first night was about rallying our municipal team and communities together to save lives… I couldn’t keep the future impacts out of my mind,” Boyce told Marie Claire.
Responsible for spatial, environmental and economic development, Boyce and her team had to assess the damage and begin drawing up a recovery plan: “I had a good idea of what the actual impact would be. Large sections of mature commercial timber plantations were destroyed – what of those employed by the industry? And our tourism industry? All of those people would need assistance. Only after the worst of the fire did my real job start.”
Even when her own house was affected, she still had to keep her mind on the important job at hand. “[The community’s] hospitality shown to me… left me feeling inspired about my job ahead. Like many people, I know we have a lot to look forward to, with possibilities to change our town for the better.”
Part of Boyce’s role now is to look at new ways to approach nature conservation and community protection. While a national tragedy, the fires were also an opportunity to find alternative means to stimulate growth in the community, create employment and boost the tourism industry.
“Knysna has an indomitable spirit,” Boyce said “[We] don’t live in a hopeless town. It is a community where people instantly pull themselves up and put their best foot forward. If there’s one message I think has come out of this, it’s that Knysna cannot be defeated. Like our fynbos, we are ready to flourish after this fire.”
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