[intro]This weekend we celebrated International Women’s Day. There are many stories we could feature about females making the world a better place. In the light of the recent devastating mountain fires in Cape Town, we chose to focus on firefighter Anelisa Fani. One of her colleagues died battling a raging blaze this weekend. This story was first published in GroundUp (www.groundup.org.za ) an online community journalism project. The pictures are by Masixole Feni.[/intro]
Soon after first light, Anelisa Fani takes her 18-month-old-daughter Nikita to day care before she sets off to fight the fires that have been devastating the Cape peninsula.
It’s 5:30am 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, assisted to douse one of the largest veld fires ever to rage across the slopes of Table Mountain.
Several veld fires broke out in the Southern Peninsula and spread rapidly.
Thousands of hectares of vegetation burned and 13 properties, collectively worth millions, were damaged, with three structures completely gutted.
In the midst of the disaster, GroundUp followed 22-year-old Flani to the Working on Fire base in Newlands, as efforts to contain the massive blaze entered its fifth day.
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, that 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 said.
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 that 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’ve been smelling like smoke and 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 explained.
Before leaving the house, Flani’s mother, who works as a cleaner in an old age village in Somerset West, told GroundUp she fears for her daughter’s safety everyday.
“I see on the news how risky her work is. Sometimes we had no contact because her phone was off and I didn’t know if she was safe. She also has a baby to worry about. But, I’m very proud of her,” she said.
After shining her boots and packing two small bags, Flani wraps Nikita in a blanket and carries her to daycare at a house, three streets away.
Flani briefly described her week, that included her first ever 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 claim the mountain at that stage. I was shaking. The fire then spread to Fish Hoek. I joined the team again on Monday and stayed at work until Wednesday afternoon.
“On Tuesday, there was a time we couldn’t do anything and we just had to watch the flames. We felt so helpless,” she said.
During fire season – the height of the summer months ending in April – Flani, receives R86 a day and works seven days a week from 9am until 6pm. Outside of fire season she receives R1 800 a month.
“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 were sweating all the time. Our uniforms with the T-shirt, jacket, balaclava, helmet and safety boots… all of this is very heavy, but I love what I do. The money I get helps my mother to pay for things at home,” she said.
Flani catches a 7am bus to Newlands and walks up to the base where she reports for duty at 9 am. Exhausted, Flani fell asleep during the trip to work.
“It’s difficult living so far away and having to travel into work everyday when you are tired. I get up at 5:30am in order to get my baby ready before I have to take a bus to work. I work seven days a week from 9 am to 6 pm. The worst part is going from here to those big houses up there.
“It does become scary out there when the fire got bigger and out of control,” she said.
At the Newlands base, Flani is assigned to a crew leaving for Tokai Forest.
“I love what I do. We are under a lot of pressure most of the time, but it feels good to know that you are helping to stop this big fire and save people’s homes from burning down,” she said.
On Saturday, helicopter pilot Hendrik Willem “Bees” Marais was showing a little girl who wanted to be a firefighter pilot how a chopper works. Hours later, he died while battling a raging fire near Olifantsbos in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. Marais was part of the Working on Fire crew, just like Annelisa Flani.
The chopper crashed while water-bombing at the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park, Cape Point. Marais was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead on arrival.
In a statement officials said, 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 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.