Volunteers needed to tackle veldfires

With summer approaching more wildfires will require attention and the services of the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) will become increasingly important. An open day is planned to attract more youth to the VWS.

Everybody knows about the dangers of a runaway fire, but not everybody knows that the people putting their lives on the line combating these fires are volunteers.

The Volunteer Wildfire Service (VWS) is a non-profit organisation which was formed to fight dangerous wildfires around the Western Cape, with all its members volunteering their time and efforts.

Gill Ritchie from the VWS Organisational Committee said they want more awareness around the VWS, to attract the interest of more youth and they hope their upcoming open day on Saturday November 26 would do the trick.

“All our members are volunteers and give up their time to assist in fighting fires in the peninsula. We want to inform people about our open day so we are able to encourage involvement. This in turn leads to a greater awareness within the communities in the Western Cape as well as allowing us to bring in the much needed funds required to assist our organisation with operational costs during fire season,” Ms Ritchie said.

The VWS was formed in 1999, during the time of the large fires that swept across most of the Cape Peninsula, as a volunteer organisation dedicated to fighting wildfires within Table Mountain National Park (TMNP).

In 2009, they started to expand to assist Cape Nature through a station in Jonkershoek and have, in recent years, added a station in the South Peninsula and Grabouw allowing them to assist more partners and help more communities.

The VWS has about 220 members at four stations, namely Newlands, Jonkershoek, South Peninsula and the newly developing Grabouw station. The NPO is fully run and managed by the volunteers, having already assisted the Table Mountain, Cape Nature, Overberg District Municipality and Winelands District Municipality with some of the wildest fires Cape Town and the province have ever experienced.

They work closely with other emergency service organisations in wild-land fire management, which means, that to date, the VWS has achieved over 56 000 active fire-fighting hours among its members and stations. Their services include wildfire suppression services; suppression and management training; education and awareness programmes as well as monitoring and active suppression during prescribed ecological burns.

“With the ongoing support of the community, VWS will continue its goal of saving and protecting South Africa’s natural heritage, property, lives and precious mountain water catchment areas,” Ms Ritchie said.

The Newlands station is the original and founding VWS station and it is a well-developed station with just over 100 members volunteering their time, making the station a very effective fire fighting unit.

Ms Ritchie said the VWS shares its base with the SANParks fire management offices, as it is Table Mountain National Park which the Newlands crews assist in fighting wild fires. However, Newlands crews do not only fight wildfires in the Cape Peninsula, but are often called upon to assist with fire-fighting efforts further afield in areas like the Boland, alongside the Jonkershoek crews, or even further in places such as the Cederberg. “We are proud to say that the Newlands base is home to our ICS Planning section. One of the rooms in our base is solely used for planning as it is vital to the functioning of our fire-fighting efforts.

“Our ‘Planners’ are able to plot, map and run our fire-fighting efforts down to the smallest detail, which helps us create a well-oiled fire-fighting effort,” said Ms Ritchie.

The Cape fires from the 2015 season is one of the most significant periods for the VWS as the effort put in by all members of the unit was monumental, not only those on the front lines facing the flames but all those who worked tireless behind the scenes. As a unit, they were pushed hard and in the end pulled together with the community at large to come out stronger while having put in the most annual operational hours in the VWS’s history – recording over 11 000 hours of fire-fighting.

Kelly Vlieghe, the training manager at the Newlands station, heard about VWS through friends and thought it would be a good way to challenge herself, gain new experiences, meet new people and help out the community at the same time.

“To get the chance to work alongside people I consider role models, and to be friends with them, is a privilege.

“This holds true not just when part of a team facing against the elements, but also for members that go above and beyond the call of duty and give an inordinate amount of time behind the scenes assisting with managing the organisation as well as planning events,” she said.

Ms Vlieghe said she has the unique challenge of making sure all members, current and new, receive training each year to prepare them for what they’ll face in fire season.

Each member of the VWS must complete a minimum amount of training to qualify each year, and must be evaluated at the end of the training season (during the winter months). “A lot goes into the planning of each training session, which need to be relevant, engaging and progressively challenging for everyone taking part,” she said. “I am not exempt from training, and must balance time between training others, keeping my own fitness and skills current, work and other activities outside of the VWS.”

For more information or to volunteer call Ms Ritchie on 082 413 6617.