Karoo landowner retells how aerial firefighting resources saved the day

2 Jul,2019 | Aviation News, Working on Fire

To share positive stories about our firefighters, whether it’s ground or aerial teams, is never too late. Even if years have passed. Sometimes we don’t realise the impact which fire disasters have on people, and when they tell their stories as they have experienced it, you realise that the work you do, is not left unseen or unappreciated.

Recently, National WOF Aviation Manager, Mike Assad, met Alrie a guest farm owner, during a Karoo road tour. When she heard he worked for Working on Fire, she shared this beautiful story, which has to be shared.

Alrie van Wyk (from the farm Papkuilsfontein in Nieuwoudtsville District – Northern Cape) tells her story:

 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013, we received a call, informing us that a veld fire had started on the community farm, Onder-Melkkraal – 13km from us – due to the burning of rubbish. By that time, it had already spread to our neighbour’s farm whose owners were away on leave and could not be reached.

 

Local farmers and their workers joined forces – they started conducting “militia” firefighting to help protect the neighbour’s farm, wheat and historical buildings.

 

The fire raged on for days. My husband, Jaco van Wyk, and my father in-law, together with a crew of other farmers tended to the fire into the night. The wind would die down in the evenings, and then by 10 o’clock in the morning repeat blowing with a vengeance again.

 

We set-up an Incident Command Post on our farm, Papkuilsfontein, the Thursday, made contact with the local municipality, the firefighting team in Calvinia and most importantly – Charl du Plessis from Greater Cederberg Fire Protection Association (GCFPA). We did not know him well but, in retrospect, it would be the GCFPA’s experience and expertise that would enable us to finally stop the fire.

 

By Friday, the fire had spread over a radius of 30km. As soon the flames were contained at one end, it started up 30km west or north. The “initial attack team” was running on fumes. They had gone without sleep for way too long and the fire seemed to only be getting bigger and bigger. People from the nearest town joined the fight and many farmers cut their vacations short to bolster forces.

 

The Working on Fire team from Porterville, managed by the GCFPA, arrived at Papkuilsfontein. They had a song and spring in their youthful bodies. They didn’t look even slightly scared in the face of this enormous task of containing this “mega wildfire”, burning from horizon to horizon.  They immediately took their gear and head to the fireline.

 

The GCFPA manager, Charl, and a few other decision makers, local and district Municipalities, got together and tried to organise aircraft assistance, as they had realised that the fire could not be contained with ground resources only.

 

The go-ahead was given after engaging the Western and Northern Cape Provincial Disaster Management Centres. It was a sheer miracle that the required resources were available.

 

 

On the Saturday, myself and a few other ladies drove to the field to deliver food rations. There were about 60 exhausted and slightly hopeless people on a hill overlooking a small canyon. The fire had already started devouring our own farm by now. Then, somewhere during the handing-out-of-rations to dirty and tired bodies, I heard my husband talk on the radio to the dispatched aerial resources.

 

Shortly after that, we could identify a faint droan of approaching aircraft in the distance – it was a beautiful sound. It was the sound of hope. And then, aerial angels arrived!

 

Two fix-wing water bombers, an Air Tractor (AT) 802 and a Drommader, along with a command and control spotter aircraft entered the scene. The spotter consulted with my husband on where the first load of water should be dropped and then…

 

What a sight! The water showered out of the sky and most of the farmers and helpers just dropped to their knees – tears drew white lines on their dusty cheeks. Never before had water bombers been used to help fight fires on the Nieuwoudtsville plateau and so this was the first time we got to see these aircraft in action.

 

The aircrafts made all the difference. With them cooling down the fireline, enabling the ground teams to move in closer, we managed to get the fire under control and in two days we had it contained.

 

We shall forever be thankful to our community who came together that week: the local farmers and farm workers and town’s people. But we are still immensely grateful to the GCFPA, the Working on Fire team from Porterville and the WOF Aviation aircraft who joined the fight – not a moment too late.

 

The marks on the veld are still clearly visible after 5 years and the emotional impact will always be there, but we immediately have compassion when we hear of fire disasters. And, the positive effect of people standing together for a united cause was such a wonderful experience: it gave me hope that all will be well in our country – we still care for one another.

 

Alrie van Wyk

Papkuilsfontein

 

“Any additional comment on the recollection and kind words by Mrs. Alrie van Wyk would be woefully inadequate, but we would like to salute our colleagues for going the extra mile, for being fire ready, for putting others before yourselves, to save lives, protect property and the environment and restoring dignity,” CEO of Kishugu Aviation, Emile Grobbelaar, concluded.

“It’s not often that pilots get such feedback directly from the public,” says Mike Assad. “Wildland firefighting is an industry with many inherent risks, and being a firefighter, who helps save lives, properties and the environment, takes hard work, personal sacrifice and selflessness. We are therefore grateful for stories like these that express how appreciative the public are for the work they do. It really motivates our pilots and made me feel tremendously proud to be associated with our company and our pilots who does such great work.”

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