It’s 5:30 a.m. in Town Two, Khayelitsha, and firefighter Anelisa Flani has just started her day. Flani is one of nearly 400 Working on Fire crew members, who, along with hundreds of Fire and Rescue firefighters and other volunteers, has been assisting to extinguish one of the largest veld fires ever to rage across the slopes of Cape Town’s mountains.
Several veld fires broke out on the southern peninsula on Sunday and spread rapidly. Since then, thousands of hectares of vegetation have burned and 13 properties, collectively worth millions, were damaged, with three structures completely gutted. By late Thursday, officials said that it could still take days before the fire was completely extinguished.
On Thursday, GroundUp followed 22-year-old Flani to the Working on Fire base in Newlands. Flani, who lives in a two-bedroom house with her mother, Bukiwe Flani, and her 18-month-old daughter, Nikita, joined the government-initiated programme in September last year. The programme, which focuses on wild fires, was established in 2003 to create jobs in a bid to alleviate poverty.
“I didn’t finish Grade 12, so I was just sitting at home. A girl from my community told me about Working on Fire, so I applied and got in. Our training was very hard; we had to do sprints, push ups, and learn how to deal with veld and fynbos fires,” she says.
During fire season (December to April), Flani recieves R86 a day and works seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Out of fire season, she receives R1 800 a month.
“The money I get helps my mother to pay for things at home,” she says.
In order to get baby Nikita ready and to prepare for work, Flani has to wash herself and her daughter in a large plastic bucket filled with hot water, which she places in her room. A few steps away, several yellow and green tops and jackets are hanging from an indoor makeshift washing line.
“I only have two sets of uniforms. I have to wash it every night, because I smell like smoke and am very dirty. I didn’t even come home on Wednesday night, so I was in that uniform for two days. It wasn’t nice,” she explains.
After shining her boots and packing two small bags, Flani wraps Nikita in a blanket and carries her to day care in a house three streets away. Flani catches a 7 a.m. bus to Newlands and walks up to the base, where she reports for duty at 9 a.m. Exhausted, Flani fell asleep during the trip to work.
“It’s difficult living so far away and having to travel into work every day when you are tired. I get up at 5:30 a.m. in order to get my baby ready before I take a bus to work. I work seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The worst part is going from here to those big houses up there.”
Before leaving the house, Flani’s mother, who works as a cleaner in an old age village in Somerset West, told GroundUp that she fears for her daughter’s safety every day.
“I see on the news how risky her work is. Sometimes we have no contact because her phone is off and I don’t know if she is safe. She also has a baby to worry about. But, I’m very proud of her,” Flani’s mother says.
Flani briefly described her week, which included her first experience in a helicopter.
“The first fire call was in Hout Bay, and we had to go in with the chopper. I didn’t want to go at first, but we had no choice because there was no way for us to climb the mountain at that stage. I was shaking. I’ve fought other fires, but nothing like this. It’s a scary fire and so dangerous. I could feel the flames, it was so hot and we [are] sweating all the time. Our uniforms with the T-shirt, jacket, balaclava, helmet and safety boots, all of this is very heavy.”
In a statement on Thursday, officials said that, while the fire was under control, firefighters would still be deployed to monitor hotspots for flare-ups. One of the firefighters who sustained serious burn wounds this week is recovering in hospital along with several others with minor injuries.
“The next few days will include mopping up activities and an assessment of the total damages and costs of operations. Forensic investigators will be determining the possible cause of the fires,” the statement read.
This article was adapted slightly from an article in GroundUp. You can read the original here.