South Africa’s Working on Fire (Wof) firefighting programme not only saves lives and billions of rands in property every year, it also changes for the better the lives of the ex-prisoners and once-destitute people who fight the fires.
A Department of Environmental Affairs initiative, WoF is the only full-time professional veld- and forest-fire fighting service in the world. It was set up in 2003 to reduce poverty and develop skills by employing people to manage fires and other environmental issues such as invasive alien plant control.
Today WoF employs more than 5 000 young men and women who have been fully trained as veld and forest firefighters, stationed at more than 200 bases throughout South Africa.
“We continue to receive letters of appreciation from various landowners who have all expressed their gratitude and thanks to our fire fighters and aerial resources for their hard work in having in many instances saved lives, property and also the environment,” Trevor Abrahams, MD of WoF, says on the project’s website. According to Abrahams, in 2014 South Africa experienced its worst fire season in seven years.
Each of the programme’s bases, under the direction of a base manager, is manned by a team of 25 qualified people, called a hotshot crew. The crews use hand tools to fight fires, but can call on aerial support should the fire danger escalate.
A third of the firefighters are women
Recruited from marginalised communities and trained in fire awareness and education, prevention and fire suppression skills, young men and women form veld and forest firefighting ground crews to help stop the scourge of wildfire that costs the South African economy billions of rands annually.
The firefighters are 85% youth and 29% women – the highest level of female participation in any comparable fire service in the world.
One of the spinoffs of WoF is to restore the dignity of young people by helping them earn a living.
Nosmanga Nthibane, a formerly unemployed 26-year-old, is one. “When I finished school I fell pregnant and did not get the chance to further my studies,” she said. “So it took me seven years to get a job.”
The programme also gives troubled people second chances.
Lehlohonolo Majela, a 31-year-old fire-fighter based at the UKhahlamba Base in the Eastern Cape, said the programme totally changed his life for the better by helping him overcome alcoholism.
“Alcohol was everything to me,” he said. “Joining WoF as a fire fighter changed my life and I got new friends who motivated me and showed me different sides of life. I did not understand their lifestyle. I had been drinking for a long time so I realised that I had to change my life.”
Lucas Molelekoa Bakamela, from Bultfontein in the Free State, is a former gangster who has also been rehabilitated by the programme.
“I was arrested in 2011 because of violent activities with other gangs in the area and for also stabbing my girlfriend,” he said.
He was in custody for nine months until his girlfriend withdrew the charges. When was released he got a job, but was still running with gangs. He then applied for work at WoF, and his life changed.
“Here I met people with purpose in life and they were able build me and remove the mind of wickedness that was in me,” he said. “I like Working on Fire because it changed my life and it also helped me to work with people from different cultures.”