Fires, such as those that have devastated the south peninsula in the past, don’t care about tight budgets and scant resources, they just burn and they burn fast.
But now a group of volunteers, some of them still in school, some of them pensioners, will be on the front line, bolstering the efforts of already stretched emergency services, the next time there’s a big fire, or any other emergency, in this neck of the woods.
This core group of first responders, was started in Ocean View in 2010. Called Emergency Volunteer Services (EVS) they have 28 volunteers. Many of them are still in school, but don’t let that fool you: they have been through stringent firefighter and first aid training.
“This is why this programme works. These are the heroes,” said EVS director Davin Chown, pointing to the group of mostly young faces who have come with him and EVS co-ordinator Shirley Botes to the interview with the Echo.
The slight girls sipping their coffees at an Imhoff cafe can make a rope stretcher, improvise in tough situations and fight fires on tough mountain terrain.
Not everyone in the group is school going age. Some are pensioners or unemployed parents who become involved purely because they see the value in being able to help one another.
“This is how close communities are built,” Ms Botes said.
The group’s next training course is the advanced level, after which they will show off their skills across the Cape Peninsula – and beyond.
“We have the support of provincial and local government, and the community. Our aim is to fill the gap between where the resources of official channels dries up, and the growing need for first responders,” Mr Chown said.
“We are not about pointing fingers. We know that resources are tight, paired with growing populations and rising youth unemployment. That doesn’t change the fact that unless you get to a fire in under three minutes you can kiss that house goodbye – and maybe even the neighbours house: depending literally on the way that the wind is blowing,” he said.
The stretched budgets, he said, meant nothing to the ferocity of the fires that have plagued the far south, which relies heavily on eco-tourism for income.
“Tourists don’t want to look at burnt mountainsides or visit seaside villages with transport issues, and residents don’t want to have their lives’ work burn to the ground because the emergency services can’t get to them in time because the roads are bad. But the reality on the ground is that the community itself, regardless of where we live, is our greatest resource. It just means that trained first aid and fire fighter responders can greatly help contain the fire and prepare things for the professionals, when they arrive, to streamline their response time,” he said.
Mr Chown said the same approach, using older people, had also worked well in Vrygrond and there were now calls from George and towns up the West Coast wanting to emulate their model.
Three years back, trained EVS fire watchers were given routes to walk and watch. They were able to spot fires before they got out of control, containing them by creating fire breaks or directing fire brigades.
“It worked, but people who didn’t understand complained about ‘young people’ being untrained to do this, and it became unpopular even though that was patently not true,” said Mr Chown.
As he talks, some of the youngsters begin to look a bit tired. Ms Botes explains that she was up with them at 3.45am for a fire in Aquarius Way, Ocean View.
In the past two weeks they have battled five blazes – in Masiphumelele, Ocean View and Redhill.
The girls say that at first, the idea of the fire can be scary. “But once you are there, your training kicks in and all the fear vanishes. Then its just …gone,” said Lisa Daniels. She says her mom was a bit skeptical at first about her being needed at the odd hours that fires broke out. “But she supports me and she knows my passion is to help people.
“I learnt a lot about myself through EVS, I learned discipline and determination and I really enjoy helping people a lot,” she said.
Devon Daniels says he chose fire-fighting so he could show the little ones in the community a better way.
Giovanni Botes said he valued learning new things and meeting different people. “I like helping people to live good lives,” he said.
Brandon Botes said: “Normally we have to wait for the fire brigades to come, but this is good because now we rather train people right here in the community to become first responders.”
The EVS had its annual award ceremony on Saturday November 26 at Living Hope where the volunteers were allowed to dust off the soot and shine a little.The youngsters insisted on sharing the limelight with Ms Botes, whom they dote on. They say she is like a mother to them.
Mr Chown says the programme is a feeder for the emergency services, but it’s not for everyone. “This isn’t a job. It’s a calling. I’m really proud that these kids have found theirs – and that the quality of their work and commitment is being recognised. This is the group which will share the way forward with others, all the while keeping their home, the Far South, safe,” he said.