The Sentimental Firefighter – The story so far of a fire nomad on a mission

I am a wildland firefighter from Cape Town, South Africa. I have been involved in the wildfire industry both as a volunteer and as a professional for several years. I am a crew leader, divisional/group supervisor, firefighter, trainer, safety manager and wildfire consultant in South Africa. Initially born in the northern part of my country, Pretoria, I always wanted to be a wildlife vet. After many attempts and studying equine sciences and biology to get credits for veterinary science, I eventually had to let this dream go ultimately due to financial reasons.

I have always been passionate about animals and the natural environment, and a friend suggested that I study a bachelor’s degree in environmental management. I figured if I couldn’t save and protect animals the way I had hoped to, I could at least try doing the same for their homes and well-being. While studying environmental management I learnt about a special biome called fynbos (fine bush). I learnt about its high levels of biodiversity and the sheer amount of endemic species that existed predominantly in a South African province called the Western Cape. This degree initially made me feel quite overwhelmed and depressed by the current and forecasted status of our climate and the natural world, and this floral kingdom was a beaming light of hope for me. I felt a need to protect it and moved to the opposite side of my country, while continuing to complete my degree online.

I was unable to initially find environmental work in Cape Town, the main capital of the Western Cape and primary home of fynbos. Having played, and still playing semi-competitive field hockey at the time, I found a job at a wonderful all-girls primary school in the southern suburbs as a coach. During my time there I completed my degree, while simultaneously becoming more and more integrated into the school and the student’s lives. I moved up from a hockey coach to also getting involved in the academic side of the school, having a fair amount of tertiary academic experience under the belt in subjects like biology, geography, mathematics and science.

Upon completion of my BA in environmental management and through building strong relationships within the school, I was offered a learnership to do a post graduate degree in intermediate phase education, as the school saw potential and passion in me as an educator. I fell in love with teaching and the school itself, so I jumped at the opportunity! I completed my four-year degree in eighteen months and was blessed to do my practicals at the school. During this time the Cape Peninsula experienced a devastating wildfire in 2015.

I wanted to help with all my being and sat on my balcony each night watching the emergency lights flashing and working around the clock to protect the City.

I felt powerless. I delivered water and energy bars, batteries for headlamps and sunblock to drop off points and witnessed the faces of our exhausted heroes.

At this point I still didn’t know that wildland firefighting was a separate entity from structural firefighting, and that this was a career option.

During work one day a year later, a flier landed on my desk. An organisation called the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) was advertising their Newlands fire base Open Day. This is a day where the organisation gives back to the community and engages with the youth. They exhibit their skills, knowledge and tools, and the new recruits of the past training season are inducted and introduced to the community they will be serving. It also involves a really fun foam party at the end on the helipad.

I emailed the chairman at the time immediately asking how I could join. I was able to join as a new recruit in the next intake a few months later. I knew from my first day that this was what I wanted to do. And with these incredible people. I was fortunate enough to have the blessing of the school to be both a full-time staff member and a volunteer firefighter, often arriving at school straight from a fire call, not looking or smelling too great. The students that I taught and coached were very interested in this other side of my life and levelled up in their wildfire knowledge and safety as my journey continued. The school, my students and their parents were all extremely supportive of my new passion, and this was pivotal in allowing me to grow very quickly on the line and in the industry. I took on management and leadership roles from early on and dedicated all of my free time to serving the organisation wherever I could.

This incredible organisation (VWS) consists of around four hundred firefighters, fundraisers, logistical support, and drivers who dedicate themselves to protecting our province without pay and any government support. We raise our own funds to operate, by hosting fundraising events like quiz evenings, marshalling at major cycling and running races, standing with donation cans at malls and various other activities that help us engage with the public. We raise funds for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), vehicles, fuel, and so on, from the very communities we serve and protect. We also boast an incredible statistic of nearly 40% female firefighters! Every year we bring in young aspiring new recruits and this number has been steady throughout my time at the organisation.

In my third season as a volunteer, I was approached and head hunted to start, lead and train the first all-female wildland firefighting crew in South Africa (probably Africa too). I sat down with my students and colleagues and received their blessing to take this opportunity with their full support and love. The company that hired me had no female firefighters and their bases, uniform and culture was not prepared for us.

After the most challenging two years of my life, we successfully walked out of the end of our second season as a name to be reckoned with.

We named ourselves crew Juliet, after noticing that “J” was the only female phonetic in the NATO alphabet. We felt akin to the name as the only female crew. We also felt isolated with a lack of financial support, and like the Volunteer Wildfire Services, we had to raise our own funds from the general public for PPE, tools, a vehicle, and disposables like batteries. We were never provided a base during our time and either lived out of our donated vehicle (which we named Ikaya, which means home in Xhosa), or earned our keep at a fire base on a company client’s wine farm, performing environmental services, such as biological search and rescue and stack burns.

These ladies were true examples of grit and determination, and I learnt so many lessons as a leader and a human, and as they liked to call me, “mama”. When I was first asked to take on this mammoth task, I was barely a crew leader in my own right and could not find a strong female mentor to guide me through the process at the time. I did have a few really incredible male mentors to draw from, but this situation was so unique, and my crew was so different to anything anyone had experienced, that I really felt the need for female mentorship and support. I found an informal mentorship programme on Facebook, and this led me to the amazing Jane Park. Jane is an incredible leader at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. An Incident Commander and all-round rock star, she helped me along on my journey, and continues to do so today. This was crucial to me during this time in my career. I was blessed to meet Jane earlier this year at WTREX 2022 (Women’s Training Exchange in Virginia).

Ultimately, due to the toxic nature of the company’s leadership that we were housed under, and the fact that our raised funds were misappropriated, and ulterior motives were set as a higher priority than crew safety and well-being, I left Juliet at the end of the second fire season. Working conditions remained unchanged, and I was constantly concerned about my ladies and my own safety both on and off the fire line. Leaving my crew was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make, as I felt responsible for the women under my care. I felt however, that moving on would allow me to create better opportunities for them and other women in fire, and I wanted to know that the next doors that I was opening were not only sustainable and, but more importantly, safe.

The opportunity, though challenging, highlighted the many needs and gaps in the industry and I have been on what some have called, an ambitious crusade ever since. This really highlighted for me that in order to achieve and maintain diverse ecosystems, and to tackle the array of anthropogenic and systemic climatic issues, we need a diversity of people at the decision-making table. Not just woman, all minorities need to be represented. Like the rest of the world, our wildfires are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Our fire seasons are shifting and getting longer. We also followed the trend of putting out all fires and are facing fuel loading, in a fuel type that is fire driven, adapted and dependent. We have faced several record breaking devastating wildfires in my young career. We have experienced our hundred year fire every year since 2017. We have lost a number of firefighters and members of the public in the process.

A few years ago, we also faced the worst drought ever recorded in South African history in the Western Cape, and we very nearly reached Day Zero. This means that we came very close to running out water completely with our main dams bottoming out at 3% at a stage, and reservoirs dipping below 13%. This would have resulted in the city’s water supply being shut down.

During my time leading Juliet, we were able to work on a few ecological and fuel reductive prescribed burns and something inside of the suppressionist in me was changed forever. This change was both my understanding of fire as well as my relationship with it. From trying to bring back an extinct protea species on a private suburban farm, to an ecological burn on an island called Intaka Island (or, bird island). I was also able to participate in fuel reductive burns like stack burns.

I could no longer be the same firefighter I was before after these ecological and fuel reductive experiences. Simply suppressing and fighting fire for the sake of it no longer made pure sense to me when there were so many other complexities and benefits that fire bring us as a tool.

Of course, defending lives, property and the environment were still my mandate, there will always be fires that need to be suppressed and until we find an environmental balance, this will continue, but there is a great need to focus on preventative and preparatory wildfire management principles.

I started trying to better understand how we could improve our wildfire management practices by looking into our past. There is a hesitance and fear and a disjointed approach to prescribed fire back home, no real uniformity or standards. I was also unable to attain any qualification or mentorship in this field. With a lack of opportunities, and a desire to grow and learn more about prescribed fire I embarked on an incredible journey to the United States to find out how it is being implemented on a different continent. A continent we look up to, and base a lot of how we do things on.

I kept hearing and reading the words, “Good Fire”, and I needed to know what these words meant.

With the support of another incredible NGO, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and a fair amount of crowd funding, support from the VWS and Vulcan Training, gear sponsorships from Vallfirest and Mystery Ranch, I packed my bags. In order to do this, I needed to leave my job as a consultant for an incredible company (Vulcan Training), and pack up my house. I dropped my doggo Lily and car off at my best friend and headed into the unknown. Consider this for a moment; the uniform I have been wearing in the US consists of the support from 3 continents. TNC also generously supported me with some food and lodging when on details, as well as internal flights between the various chapters and details, and a rental car.

I have had the ride of my life up until this point. I have managed to travel to twelve States, been a part of around 34 burns and burned about 8600 acres during my time here. I have had the amazing opportunity of working in a variety of fuels, under a variety of leadership styles and in a variety of roles. From leading, to following, to managing, to analysing. I have managed to open and close my Faller 3 and Firefighter Type 1 task books. I was told back home that women don’t use saws, and this drove me to learn how. I am currently working through my Crew Boss, Firing Boss and Engine Boss task books in the USA system and working through my Single Resource leader in South Africa, though I am already qualified for the role. This is the first South African task book in its existence and I wanted to experience it before signing other Crew Leader’s tasks and books off in the future.

I have also had the privilege of working with special and endangered species such as the South East Coast red cockaded woodpecker in the long leaf pine system, as well as the super cool prairie chickens of Minnesota. Using fire to help restore their habitats has been such a special part of this journey. During my journey I also attended WTREX in Virginia and a TNC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), workshop in Missouri. Programs such as these are designed to promote underrepresented minorities and diversity in what is currently a very uniform industry. WTREX strengthens female leadership and helps build strong national and international support networks, enhancing collaboration and industry support. I feel like I am going home with a vastly extensive fire family and am so grateful to all the amazing people who have welcomed me and embraced me. Leaders and mentors like Kelly Martin, Bethany Hannah and Lenya Quinn-Davidson taking the time out to work with me throughout my journey has meant everything.

After 3 months of touring all over the country and learning, growing, and leading in prescribed fire, I made my way to California to present at the International Association of Wildfire (IAWF) Conference on Fire and Climate. I was nominated as an emerging international leader in our industry and was truly humbled and honoured to be a part of this important event. I met world leaders in our industry and was able to share the story of my volunteer organisation and country. I have been consistently working for months to establish connections to build international exchange programs so that my people can share in what I have just experienced and assist the USA with fire management and suppression resources. I also dream of bringing American firefighters and practitioners back home to do cross training and gain international experience on African soil.

Recently I was honoured to make it onto a Californian Hotshot Crew (Fulton Hotshots) and was privileged to do a month-long assignment in the final frontier, Alaska. Here I was also able to shadow an incredible Incident Meteorologist, a fire behaviour team, and Ops at the ICP in Fairbanks.

I will ultimately leave here in soon (I am still on my crusade), empowered and connected for the good fight for good fire and hundreds of firefighters and practitioners will benefit from my time here. I am trying to bring more good people into the fight to sustain our planet for future generations. We as a country have shown that we share many of the same issues, and have our own obstacles to overcome and need some support to do that too.

I have built a strong network of female fire practitioners specifically as well, and we will support each other in all of our endeavours. I received so much support for my recent presentation and it was all the help I needed at my first international conference. This will surely help us raise the status and number of women in our industry over time as we raise each other up.

Climate change affects everyone, especially vulnerable countries like my own and my continent as a whole. And while there is good science and action that should be taken by all of us to do our part, recognising that we can do and should tackle this mammoth task together, sharing resources and knowledge, brings hope to a seemingly daunting situation. And while my definition of myself is nomadic, this fire wanderer is trying to unite the world by standing on her own (currently, and temporarily), and saying what many others have said and are saying, we need each other.

We need to collaborate. We need each other and our humanity now, more than ever.