I am a wildland firefighter working within the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm currently in my second season, and I am not planning on giving up fire any time soon. My top goal in life is to make wildland firefighting my career. My love for fire started during the height of the COVID pandemic of 2020 when I stumbled across a video on YouTube about firefighter’s absolutely killing it on the line. It looked so thrilling and exciting–and that is when I made the decision to pursue firefighting for the rest of my life. The next step was to decide whether I want to go into structural or wildfire.

A firefighter a few houses down my street works for the City of Cape Town's fire department in Milnerton. I wrote him a note asking for information on how to become a firefighter, as well as his experience doing this as a full-time career. He gave me a tour of his fire station and, after that, we started researching information on the internet about various job opportunities within fire. We came across the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), which is a nonprofit organisation and I thought VWS might be a good option as they looked like a pretty cool group of people to be a part of.

A few months passed and the intakes were open for seasonal firefighting within the City of Cape Town's fire department and my neighbour sent me the application form. I filled it in and waited for a response–with no luck. This has since happened multiple times where I have applied with an unsuccessful outcome, as the competition is pretty high. My mom’s work colleague then suggested that I should talk to her brother, who is part of the VWS at their Stellenbosch base. I did exactly that and attended my first information session held by VWS back in March 2021. COVID was high up in the air, so it had to still be done virtually. A few members spoke about their experience and everything about the unit and why we should join. Obviously, hearing their stories got me hooked even more! I put my name down, went to the orientation day, and officially started my fire journey.

With a few fires now under my belt, I am continually learning; as a student of fire, I have not looked back.

One of my most memorable experiences as a New Recruit was a multi-day fire that started on a Wednesday on the slopes of Lourensford wine farm, just outside of Cape Town. The fire eventually burned roughly 2000 hectares (close to 5000 acres) and had multiple days of extreme fire behaviour, with flame lengths of about 25-30 meters (82- 98 ft) from old growth proteas. It was an exhilarating experience. I was placed in multiple roles, including structural protection, pumps operation, direct attack, comms, and lookout. The fire behaviour was out of control and kept ”chasing” us. As a new recruit, it was a very stressful moment for me. That being said, I learned a lot about fire behaviour and fireline safety, alongside the importance of working together as a team to achieve the end goal. This fire in particular has stuck with me because it was the moment I got truly hooked on fire. It also opened my eyes into what it means to train hard and be introduced to multiple levels of responsibility; this is why our training season is so important. Even though fighting fires and doing prescribed burns is exciting and thrilling, it is important to find the balance between fighting fires and spending time to help build positive relationships within the crew, as well as contribute towards growing and improving the organisation. To be an excellent firefighter is to not only have knowledge about fire, but is also about the team spirit, trust, and the relationships we build within our unit to have one another’s back when we are out there tackling blazing fires.

This year, I had the privilege to be a part of WTREXSA 2023, a women’s prescribed fire training exchange, that was held in South Africa. This was the first time that an event of this kind has been held in Africa. I had the opportunity to meet extraordinary people and made life-long friends. During those two weeks, we learned about the importance of women in fire, prescribed burns, burn plans, drip torch operation, chainsaw practice, and so much more. These aspects of ‘good fire’ are beginning to gain momentum here in the Western Cape, where our predominant fynbos biome needs fire in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem. However, events like this help to educate and increase awareness about the importance of bringing healthy fire back into this landscape.

Being a woman in fire gives you a sense of pride. It makes women feel empowered to know that not just men can kick some “fire ash.”

Being in an organisation such as the VWS, which has one of the highest percentages of female firefighters in the world (34.2%), is spectacular and I am truly grateful to be a part of that. Although VWS does have a lot of female firefighters, we don’t have a lot of women in leadership roles. This is why being a part of the first international WTREX was so influential for me. It was the first time I was exposed to such a great variety of female leadership styles.

There is a misconception that the effective firefighters in leadership roles are dominant males who do not show emotion but rather strength and endurance. These unrealistic expectations are impossible to live up to and it also excludes a wide category of great leaders with other leadership styles. Leadership can look like the stereotypical firefighter mentioned above, but it can also include women firefighters who have extraordinary the ability to show compassion, empathy, and be strong. Some men (not all) enjoy competing with others whereas many women strive towards collaboration and team building to help everyone achieve great success. This form of leadership might benefit firefighting organisations as a whole as it includes diverse ways of leadership which can meet the needs of unique individuals. For example, a strong-headed and outgoing person might be more drawn to an outspoken dominant leader; whereas a shy, reserved (introverted) person might benefit more from a more compassionate and empathetic leader. I am encouraged to think I can be this kind of leader and that it can be the start of the change in how we view leadership in the South African wildfire industry. To achieve this, I need to learn to empower myself to become the best I can be.

Before WTREXSA, I was being groomed to start my leadership training. The primary feedback I was getting was that I just needed to be louder and more outgoing–but that is not who I am as a person, and I felt like I couldn’t fit into that leadership stereotype. I am not a complete extrovert and I tend to often second guess myself. I tend to be very hard on myself in the sense that I feel that I cannot make mistakes at all, even minor ones.

WTREXSA helped me to realise that I do have the knowledge and skills needed to become a successful firefighter; I now just have to realise that for myself.

I need to learn to be confident in backing myself up, as well as in my decisions. It is difficult for me to be open and vulnerable about my insecurities and my weaknesses, as it is something I have been battling with for all my life.

A quote that resonated with me recently by Michael Phelps, says “I think goals should never be easy, they should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time.” I always embraced the physical discomfort of being on the line. However, the discomfort of backing myself up and putting myself in a leadership role hasn’t come easy to me and it’s something I have to work harder on. Seeing leaders at WTREXSA that have similar introverted personality types as me, made me realise that you can still have great impact and not be the loudest in the room. I will forever feel grateful towards WTREX for helping me believe in myself. Those two weeks at WTREX were some of the best moments in my life. This course had an incredible impact on me, as I learnt a lot about myself and what I'm capable of if I believe in myself, enabling me to begin to find my voice. My confidence grew as both a firefighter and as a woman in fire. I am excited to see how my career develops and how I change and improve myself.