SA fire-fighting giants extinguishing the World’s wildfires – Trevor Abrahams

South Africa has emerged as a formidable force in fighting wildfires all over the world, with firefighters from the job-creation program “Working on Fire” gaining international recognition. In June, a team was dispatched to Edmonton, Canada, to bolster firefighting efforts against raging blazes that had consumed homes for over a month. What sets the South African team apart from others is their tradition of singing, which has gone viral. Trevor Abrahams, Managing Director of “Working on Fire,” told BizNews that the program is providing employment and fostering cohesive teams that are sought after overseas. He said with climate change predicting worsening wildfires, their services are increasingly in demand and their “business is going to boom.” Commenting on the wildfires in Europe and parts of Northern Africa, Abrahams said the increased exposure of some countries to wildfires necessitates preventative work, governments should be shifting more resources to forestall wildfires – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

250 SA firefighters are still in Canada, monitoring Europe

There are about 12 million hectares of fires in the area that’s been burnt already. But this is not the end of the fire season. The fire season tends to end in about September. So, the area which has been burnt this year is more than twice the highest figure ever burnt in a fire season and so fires are going on. It’s cooling down right now but the weather is very, very unpredictable and it could go on right through August. We’ve come back as late as September from Canada in 2021.

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We are certainly monitoring Europe. In Algeria, 34 people died. But, to go out there, you do need all the protocols and the agreements in place. So, I don’t foresee us doing it, although, in Canada, we had quite a bit of contact with other countries. They had firefighters from every continent: South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, the US and of course France, Portugal, Spain and South Africa. So, there’s been quite a bit of interest in terms of our firefighting capacity from other parts of the world. But the kind of situation we now have in Europe,  we need to have preceding agreements in place. It’s a dangerous business. You do have to plan properly to get involved.

The road to international recognition

We are actually celebrating our 20th anniversary this year. We started in 2003 as a government-expanded public work programme and grew very rapidly because the need for youth employment is acute in our country and we train them. To explain our going abroad, we have gone to Indonesia as well as to Chile to assist them with setting up their own forces. But, I think the high point was in 2011 when we hosted the World WildFire Conference at Sun City. We had 800 people in the auditorium singing on the stands to welcome their guests. After that, we went to Pilanesberg. We lit up a mountain with permission and demonstrated to the world how quickly we put it out. We put every aircraft we had on it and every firefighter around there. We put that fire out in half an hour and everybody was amazed and through the exhibition, we became known and the executive director of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre was present and he said, we need to have these people in Canada and that’s how it started. 

Running away from poverty

We recruit amongst the unemployed youth. So, the first thing you need to do is you need to be fit. The first entrance exam is actually running a 2.4 kilometre and one of our long-standing firefighters, the general manager, was once asked, why did you go and run that 2.4 and she answered on the spot and said, ‘Look, I matriculated, I was unemployed for four years. I was running away from poverty.’ So that’s where you get it. We mould them in the training into a firefighting team which looks after each other because this is a question of the weakest link in the chain, that is how strong you are. So, there’s a very strong corps d’esprit in terms of looking after each other. They operate as a team and become very proud of their accomplishment. Of course, they are seen in the community as doing broad community service. So, when they go back, they will very proudly wear their uniform, they have a sense of purpose in life. Within the structures, they also can move up as managers or first-level managers. So, 60% of our managers are former firefighters. There’s movement up and then many of our firefighters go on to permanent jobs in the private sector, in the Government and Police Conservation Agency. So, we are a fairly established social transformation project.

Climate change leads to ‘booming business’, the importance of prevention

Unfortunately, the predictions are that the wildfires are going to get worse. Temperature is a big factor in it and with it also drought. Right now, the global pattern is switching from an El Niña period where it gets wet and cooler. I think we’ve certainly seen that switching into a drier and warmer phase. How long it will go, we don’t know. It can go on for two, three, four or five years. With that it is going to be drier in the northern hemisphere, they got the first impact of El Niño. So, Canada had a very hot and dry spring. By May they were burning already and that’s where this catastrophe has its roots. Right now, as we speak, they have a bit of a wet dampening down of it. But the conditions are such that as soon as that changes, they’re going to have the fires picking up again. They got more than a thousand fires going at the moment across the country, in Canada. So, yes, I think our business, if you like, is going to boom, if I can say it.

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But I think it’s very important that with climate change, all the scientists are saying that it is important to do preventative work and that’s what we do quite a bit. So, we in South Africa have two fire seasons, the summer down in the Cape and South Coast coast and right into Eastern Cape and the winter months, pretty much the rest of the country. So, we just had a big cold snap and right now we had 330 fires that we attended in June. July’s figures are also climbing up, I think it is 280. The cold snap kills off all the new growth that came up with wetness, which means we’ve got more tinder available now. We could see a situation in South Africa where September and October if it does become dry, becomes quite hot as fires go.

Preventive work is very important. So, what our fire teams do during the off-season, they do a lot of community work in terms of fire education and then also they get into the schools and then they do the firebreaks, they do fuel load reduction by reducing the kind of surplus fuel loads in the area to reduce the risk of fire. A UN report that has just been released from the Environment Committee has also stressed that governments should be shifting more and more resources into the preventative arena.

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