Dedicated WOF aerial firefighting resources for local municipality
Msukaligwa local municipality adds a Working on Fire Huey helicopter, spotter aircraft and aviation support vehicle, to its firefighting toolbox this winter fire season.
In 2012, Fire Chief of Msukaligwa Local Municipality, Jaco Johnstone, witnessed as a wildfire – that had left kilometres of havoc in its wake – jump the N2 and was windswept directly towards a large cluster of infrastructure. “I remember thinking then, that I wish we had more resources to be activated during these times of extreme need,” he explained.
The rendering of fire services is the responsibility of the local municipality and, as such, Johnstone realised that he was obliged to fulfill this role.
“I take great pride in my job and in offering our municipal area the best possible support during wildfire outbreaks. In the unlikely event of a disaster, I want us to have the necessary tools in our firefighting toolbox to effectively put out the flames and prevent lives and properties from being lost unnecessarily.”
In 2013, Working on Fire (WOF), one of the Department of Environmental Affairs’, Expanded Public Works Programmes (EPWPs), placed a ground team and fire truck in Ermelo at station 1. These firefighters could be dispatched to wildfires in the area if and when needed. In the same year, Working on Fire Aviation added a Huey Helicopter with a Bambi Bucket system and a Control and Command aircraft to the equation and based it at the Ermelo Airfield. This was followed by the placing of a second WOF team at station 2 (Breyten) in 2017.
All of these were National Resources though – standing fees covered by the Working on Fire programme – and may therefore be pulled to assist elsewhere at any time, leaving local authorities with “hands tied”. The municipality only had second call at all times on National Resources.
“We were very grateful every time we could make use of these government funded resources,” Johnstone said, “but we realised that we needed dedicated resources that will have our people and our land as a priority.”
Johnstone started appealing to the local municipality as well as to the Provincial Disaster Management for funds. He found an ally in the Municipal Manager for Msukaligwa Municipality, Mr. Daniel Maluleke. Mr Maluleke had worked his way up the ranks from Trainee Traffic Officer and has seen his share of disasters. He believes in being proactive and prepared for the unexpected and “not wished for”.
“When a municipality proactively serves it community, more fires are suppressed quicker, and less lives are lost,” he passionately explains.
In December 2017, the long awaited, three-year contract between Working on Fire and Msukaligwa local Municipality was realised, making Msukaligwa the first local municipality in Mpumalanga to have dedicated, ground-, as well as aerial firefighting resources. This winter fire season, their aviation component consists of a dedicated Huey helicopter, Command and Control aircraft and an Aviation Support Vehicle (ASV). “Working on fire Aviation congratulates Msukaligwa Municipality on this great achievement,” says Mike Assad, National Manager for WOF Aviation.
In addition to the contract covering the standing fees of these aircraft (with a contribution from Working on Fire) – putting them at the disposal of the Msukaligwa community – the municipality has made provision for these resources to be called upon by paid up members of the Fire Protection Association (FPA) at a 25% discount, and non-members, whose rates and taxes have been paid in full, at 10% discount to the operational costs – a formula which should be made known to other municipalities around the country.
Msukaligwa covers 6,016 square kilometres of land – inhabited or used for grazing – and timber. It includes Ermelo, Davel, Chrissiesmeer, Breyten, Lothair, Warburton and Sheepmoor and rural communities in-between. They have already offered aerial assistance to two firefighting operations this winter.
“With the late rains this year, we have entered this winter fire season with an high fuel loads,” warns Mr Maluleka. “We caution community members to be careful not to start unwanted fires and to be vigilant and report fires quickly. With that said, we are comforted knowing that, should the need arise, we can help – we have resources ready to deploy.”
Mike Assad, National WOF Aviation Manager, Lindiwe Jele: WOF Finance Clerk, Mr Daniel Maluleke, Municipal Manager for Msukaligwa Municipality and Jaco Johnstone, Fire Chief of Msukaligwa Local Municipality at a meeting in Ermelo.