Cape Town salutes its firefighting heroes

9 March 2015

The weeklong fires across the Western Cape peninsula claimed a second life on 8 March when Willem Hendrick “Bees” Marais died in a helicopter crash while battling a fire in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, a section of the Table Mountain National Park.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa sent condolences to Marais’s family. “I wish to express the government’s and my personal condolences to the pilot’s wife, Mrs Jackie Marais, family, friends and his colleagues in the Working on Fire programme,” she said.

Marais was a respected pilot, said South African National Parks (SANParks). Bees, as he was affectionately known by friends and family alike, played a vital role in supressing the fire that burnt across the Table Mountain National Park during the course of last week, SANParks said. His vast knowledge, experience and skill as a helicopter pilot were respected by all.

“The entire SANParks family salutes the contribution made by Mr Marais as a helicopter pilot for the Working on Fire programme,” said the chairperson of the SANParks Board, Kuseni Dlamini. “He has made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting life and property during the fires that have been raging across the Table Mountain National Park, including the Cape Point section in which the accident took place.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank each and every person who played their part in suppressing the fire. Without the multi-agency co-operation among all partners which included SANParks Table Mountain National Park firefighters, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Working on Fire and the Volunteer Wildfire Services, as well as the Department of Defence aircraft, the fire would still not have been contained.”

Marais was the second firefighter to die during the weeklong blazes across the peninsula. On 5 March, Nazeem Davies, 25, a West Coast firefighter, was killed in an accident. He was stationed in Vredenburg with the West Coast Fire Service and had been part of a team that had been battling a blaze high in the mountains above Porterville.

Heading back down, he lost control of the vehicle on the treacherous mountain pass and left the road.

Two City of Cape Town firefighters and one Working on Fire volunteer were also injured during the fires – at one stage, there were seven different fires raging in different places across the province. The major fire began in Muizenberg on 1 March. At least 500 people were evacuated and 52 frail-care residents from a Noordhoek retirement village were treated for smoke inhalation. Fanned by strong winds, it raged across the peninsula, and several homes were razed to the ground before it was contained.

The fires at the Cape Point section inside the Table Mountain National Park continued to burn through the weekend of 7 and 8 March.

Forensic investigation

Meanwhile, it was reported on 8 March that the city of Cape Town had appointed one of South Africa’s top forensic experts to investigate how the Muizenberg fire started.

Cape Town’s safety and security director, Richard Bosman, confirmed the appointment of forensic scientist David Klatzow, reported the Sunday Independent newspaper.

Bosman said the fires had cost the city at least R6-million, with at least R3-million having been spent on two water-bombing helicopters that were used to douse the flames.

“The efforts this past week of the brave men and women from the various municipal fire services, as well Working on Fire, Volunteer Wildfire Services and the SANDF, cannot be put into words. ‘Hero’ has often been used, and it is entirely appropriate in this context,” said Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape.

Capetonians rallied to the cause, donating food, water and cold drinks for the exhausted firefighters. Companies gave protective gear and other needed equipment, as well as items such as lip balm. Wild animals escaping the flames were helped by legions of residents.

Local radio stations Cape Talk and KFM collected R3 160 793 from listeners for equipment and resources for Volunteer Wildfire Services.

Infrastructure investment

The end of summer is fire season in Cape Town, which has a winter rainfall. High winds, dry vegetation and hot temperatures are a perfect storm for fire.

Since 2006, five new fire stations have been built in the city, staff numbers have been increased, training facilities refurbished, new equipment bought including fire detection cameras, and extensive public education programmes have been run. In total, more than R290-million in capital expenditure has been invested, according to the premier.

Fire mortality rates for informal settlements have dropped from 7.9 per 100 000 people in 2006 to 4.3 per 100 000 people in 2013. Cape Town’s overall fire mortality rate dropped to 2.6 per 100 000, compared to the national average of between four and seven per 100 000.

“So even though there has been an increase in the incidence of fire across the Metro, there has been a decrease in the number of deaths resulting from these fires,” she said.

In total, 2 000 people took part in fighting last week’s fires, including 250 firefighters dispatched from other provinces’ Working on Fire teams. They were stationed at Wolwekloof near Ceres, and were sent out to various blazes across the province as the municipalities requested help.

It will still take weeks of monitoring to ensure that the fires have all been put out, during which time a clearer picture will emerge of the full extent of the damage to property and the environment.

SAinfo reporter