“Mike, Mike for Andre”
“On our way to the fire, water and two persons. Where do we go?”
It is October in the bush. The once lush, green landscape has transformed into grey and brown. Daytime temperatures hover around 34°C, sometimes even higher.
It is fire season.
Most of the fires started out in the bush are either accidental or a deliberate ploy to burn off old grass and foliage. For as long as Africa existed, the fire cycle has been part of the landscape. It is a very good management tool if done correctly and at the right time of year, but…
One can put all fires into two categories. One, the “cold fire” is a fire that is lit on a coolish day, usually with a bit of humidity around, with a little wind behind it. It burns rapidly, digesting grass and leaves but only scorching the base of the trees it encounters. It may digest a few small shrubs, but mostly these plants are designed to cope with a little fire.
A hot fire, on the other hand, occurs when the ambient temperature is over 30°C, humidity is very low, and gusts of wind, either weather or fire formed, drive the blaze. This type of fire is destructive. It burns through the veld consuming everything in its path. Trees go up in flames, animal dung becomes rolling fireballs. The occasional gusts of wind, formed by rapidly expanding heated air, can pick up embers and deposit them many meters away. A new fire will then burn forth from that point. Bear in mind that a tuft of grass burns at around 300°C, luckily only for a moment.
Controlling a fire (you cannot fight a force of nature) revolves around the decisions of the farm owner. Some farmers will let it burn, especially if the fire starts in an area where accessibility is difficult or impossible. Controlling fire in these areas is done by fire flaps (to deprive the fire of air and fuel) or by using a combination of leaf blowers (cools the burning material and deprives the fire of burnable oxygen and removes other flammable materials) and the fire flaps. Vehicle or trailer-mounted firefighters are used in areas where road infrastructure can be used to control a fire. The water used in this method cools the flames and causes a non-flammable barrier to form on the burning material.
Controlled backburns are used in many cases where a fire races out of control. Vehicles are put on the ready on a road and the veld is lit by using a drip torch. The operators will then douse the flames using the vehicle-mounted water bowsers driven by a petrol pump to create a barrier of burnt ground that the approaching fire cannot cross for want of flammable fuel.
It is hot, smoky, dirty and exhausting work.
In a hot fire, the whereabouts of all personnel are vital. Being trapped in a fire is lethal. Smoke inhalation and burns are some of the dangers. Broken legs and open wounds caused by moving rapidly through thorny brush are commonplace, as are other minor injuries. No one is immune. Dedicated radio channels are used to communicate and direct all personnel to where they are needed. Those without communication are placed in a group that will follow the person with the radio.
Animals tend to know exactly what to do in a fire. I have seen sworn enemies hiding in the same burrow, only to emerge after the fact to carry on with their lives. The effects on insects are more profound. Ticks are too slow to outrun the flames. Grasshoppers flee the flames but are often scooped up by birds following them for the feast of insects it provides. Larger animals will sometimes be trapped against man-made fences; yet another reason to get rid of them. It is rare to find carcasses after a fire, but it does occasionally happen.
It is a tradition in our area, when the fire is under control, to crack a cold beer with the other firefighters. The comradery after a fire brings our community together.
When you reach home smelling of smoke, sweat and petrol fumes the dogs will bark at you, and your wife will have (hopefully) prepared a meal and a BIG bottle of chilled water.
You may, however, be shown the way to a shower first…for obvious reasons.