How Cape Town fights its fires - Helen Zille

DA leader says the City's Fire and Rescue Service now has more resources than the rest of the country combined

Fighting fires takes a lot of planning and a lot of heart

8 March 2014

The devastating fires that tore through the Cape peninsula this week were a sobering reminder of just how destructive this force of nature can be.

As I started writing, I was going to tell you that the only human casualties were injuries to two City of Cape Town firefighters and one Working On Fire volunteer.

Sadly that changed on Thursday night when a West Coast firefighter was killed in an accident near Porterville. Twenty-five year-old Nazeem Davies, stationed in Vredenburg with the West Coast Fire Service, was 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. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

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.  It is worth recalling that, at one stage, there were seven different fires raging in different places, across the province.  All were eventually brought under control.

For residents who were woken in the dead of night to find the air thick with smoke, all that stood between them and the gigantic walls of flame, were the men and women in the fire jackets and helmets. They trusted these firefighters with their lives.

When big-hearted Capetonians weren't dropping off mountains of food, water and cold drinks for the exhausted firefighters, they stood and watched in shock as the terrifying and dramatic scenes unfolded around them.

Not that Cape Town needs any help in being dramatic. The city and surrounds is a natural paradise. 

The combination of miles of rugged coastline and thousands of hectares of indigenous mountainside is something you won't find anywhere else in the world.

But there is a price to pay for this. Every community that borders on this pristine, fynbos-covered mountain - and there are many - is at risk when the season turns hot, dry and windy. 

And we have a history of terrifying fires like no other city on earth.

Almost exactly fifteen years ago, Cape Town came face to face with one of the most brutal fires in recent memory. The blaze that raced across the peninsula at the end of January 2000 destroyed over 8000 hectares of vegetation. More than 200 informal dwellings were razed, and more than 70 houses were damaged or destroyed. It took 1200 firefighters almost a week to bring it under control.

If you look at where this fire started, how it spread and which areas it threatened, it is remarkably similar - and in many ways almost identical - to the fire that burnt here last week.

Both of these fires started on warm Sunday afternoons - last week's originated on the slopes above Muizenberg, and back in 2000 the starting point was a little further west along Ou Kaapseweg, near Silvermine. 

Both fires spread rapidly westward across Silvermine towards Hout Bay and Chapman's Peak, and ended up destroying property in Constantia, Tokai and Noordhoek.

In 2000, on the fourth day of the fire, the temperature soared to 41 degrees - then Cape Town's hottest recorded temperature in 34 years. Last week, on the third day of the fire, the mercury in the city climbed to a sweltering 42.4 degrees - the hottest recorded temperature in almost a century.

In 2000, while firefighters were battling the blazes on the peninsula, other fires - one in the West Coast National Park and another north of Stellenbosch - destroyed thousands of hectares of vegetation and vineyards. 

Just before last week's Muizenberg fire broke out, firefighters had brought a massive fire at Saron outside Stellenbosch under control. And while they were battling the peninsula fires, more fires in the Overberg and Malmesbury sprang up.

But while these two giant fires were extremely similar, the responses to them were worlds apart. Before I go into this, let me first explain what happened between these two big fires.

In 2006, when the DA took control of the City of Cape Town from the ANC, the Metro's Fire and Rescue Service was in an absolute shambles.

Budgets in the preceding three years had been reduced to a point where the Fire Service could barely operate. Its minimum staff requirement was 800, yet it had a staff compliment of only 450. Its oldest fire truck was 45 years old and had racked up more than a million kilometers. The equipment was woefully inadequate and in a state of disrepair.

This was tragically exposed in the summer of 2005 in what turned out to be a devastating year for informal settlements. The Fire Service was simply unable to respond adequately to a large number of fires, and a staggering 6300 informal dwellings were gutted that year.

Given the City and surrounds' extreme vulnerability to fires in the summer months, the new DA local government prioritised the turnaround of the Fire Service.

Five new fire stations were built, staff numbers were increased, training facilities in Epping were fixed up, new equipment was purchased (including fire detection cameras) and extensive public education programmes were run. More than R290 million in capital expenditure was invested in turning what was a ramshackle operation under the ANC, into a world-class Fire Service.

Six years ago the service had eight aircraft. Today it has 24. This includes helicopters, fixed wing bombers and spotters. The number of runways has been expanded and now totals thirty across the Metro, ensuring a much faster response time.

The City of Cape Town's Fire and Rescue Service now has more resources than the rest of the country combined.

The results were clear and immediate. Fire mortality rates for informal settlements came down 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 4 and 7 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.

But perhaps the biggest difference was made not by the investment in equipment, fire stations, vehicles and aircraft, but by a re-think of how to tackle the outbreak of a massive fire.

We have learnt that there is no substitute for thorough planning. As soon as one fire season ends, the planning begins for the next season. This happens through a Provincial Working Group that includes municipal fire services, Working On Fire, the SANDF and volunteers.

Learning from international successes, we adopted the Incident Command System - a multi-agency disaster management approach used to great effect in the United States. It allows personnel, facilities and equipment from various different agencies to be integrated into a common organisational structure. 

Back in 2000, this level of coordination was simply not there. The initial response to the fire was fragmented, slow and disorganised, and it took some time to establish a joint operations centre.

When last week's fire broke out, Lakeside Fire Station was immediately identified as the ideal Command Centre, and all operations were controlled from there.

Altogether 2000 people took part in fighting last week's fires. This included 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.

There was also an unprecedented level of cooperation and assistance between municipalities. This modern approach to fighting fires doesn't have boundaries and isn't slowed down by bureaucracy.

It will still take weeks of monitoring to ensure that the fires have all been put out. And over this time, we'll also get a clearer picture of the full extent of the damage to property and the environment.

When managing the crisis and its aftermath is over, we will also do a detailed "post mortem" of the management of the fire.  We are not perfect, though immeasurably improved  --  and there is always room for further improvement.

But this certainly would have been a great deal worse had it not been for the extraordinary bravery of the firefighters and the meticulous planning and response of our fire services.

We owe them so much.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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