In 2018, after completing matric, I applied to college to study tourism. But halfway through my application form, I just froze; my hand wouldn’t move. It stopped in protest. I didn’t want this. I ran out to my mother and apologized. Then pleaded my case to her. In that moment, she smiled at me and said, “I’ll support you.”
That was all I needed.
The next day I headed out in search of answers. I walked to the nearest fire station (10km). I was told I needed to work on my fitness, watch out for the recruitment post, and we discussed the process for selection. The deeper the conversation went, the more it seemed impossible for someone like me to do this. I had never run a day in my life. That night, I set up a plan: try to volunteer and work on my physical health. I applied to Disaster Risk Management, got in, but sadly the challenging issue of transport ended my journey. I couldn’t get to the base with unreliable public transport and the dangers of traveling at night as a woman in my area are significant.
Training also became a problem as running in my area wasn’t safe (high crime, gang violence and gender-based violence). “No.” I told myself, “This is not how it’s going to end.” I kept walking, searching, and praying. I found myself in a program called “Learning in Reach,” a group of ladies training for the Two-Oceans Marathon. Finally, I started running for the first time. Man, was it hell and weirdly fun. But knowing this wasn’t enough, I looked for a better option, and that’s where I applied to Chrysalis Academy, a youth development program.
Here, I saw that I could improve my health—without worrying about money or the dangers lurking in my area—and participate in a firefighting course. At the academy, the instructor took one look at me and said, “You should change your course and go do a computer skill, or anything else, because you could never be a firefighter. You are too short, thin, and your voice is too soft. You are just not built for this job.”
He was unaware that his words were like an ember falling on starved, dry fuel. I thanked him and said, “I’ll just prove you wrong, sir.”
Soon, I learnt about wildland firefighters and was hooked. I immediately applied when the application forms came out. We had to do a pack test, I weighed 44kg and had to carry 20,5kg. I couldn’t be more excited, I marked that day as the best day of my life, my opportunity finally came. I was chosen for the first South African all-female crew, Crew Juliet.
With Crew Juliet, I learnt that being a firefighter wasn’t just about being fit and saving lives (playing hero), but rather providing for safety. Our superintendent ensured that we knew our 10’s and 18’s by heart and impressed upon us how important fitness was. I loved when we trained together, singing through our tiredness. Succeeding on a project that everyone thought and hoped we’d fail at. Proving a crew of women could do this job—and do it well—without support. It wasn’t all smiles and songs, though. Being the first female crew had many challenges and I faced my old friend, poverty. Only receiving a food stamp of R1000+ ($55.00 USD) per month, I couldn’t cover my travelling costs or basic needs. Soon, I found myself dependent on my mother again. My mother earned a basic wage that barely was enough to keep food on the table for the week for her and my younger sister.
On the day of Juliet’s first fire call, I had problems with public transport, I was uneasy traveling with my PPE in my area due to risk of being attacked, resulting in being 2+ hours late. Anxiety built, as did fear of not knowing what to expect, and knowing I didn’t have enough money to cover food for the long duration. We arrived at a mop-up site that was cold. During the day, my superintendent noticed a change in the smoke coming from distant lands. She called it in and was told not to worry about it, the fire would run into the sea. She then turned to us and said, “Ladies prepare yourselves. This is going to be a long shift and we’ll be down there once that fire turns and makes a run to the houses.” To this day I wonder if she knew I never had lunch, but after the announcement, she offered to share her own meal with me. Just as our Supt predicted, a few hours later we were walking into a massive, uncontrolled fire to defend homes.
Googles fogging, choppers flying over our heads, heart racing, emotions everywhere, I had no idea how I was feeling. It was like an action thriller movie and as I looked forward my Supt stood in front of me and said, “Trust me.” I followed her instruction like a baby running after its mother, placing all her teaching into action. I was part of this movie. During the craziness of it all, I watched our Supt read and predict the fire changes, pulling us out and putting us back in when it was safe. When our shift ended, we walked to the vehicle and I noticed a sudden change in the crews’ mood. We were told we had to find our own way home after a double shift. The thriller movie turned into horror. Fire after fire, more problems surfaced. Our Supt had to fight everyone and for every problem to be solved: not enough PPE, no base, low salaries. She struggled to get her team on and off the fireline, as we had no vehicle. Many ladies left not because of the job, but the economic stress that came with it.
Another crewmember, our Supt, and I got the opportunity to talk about our experience working on fire and to encourage other females that this dream was possible. When our team started getting a lot of media attention, we shared the challenges we were facing, reaching out for donations from our communities. Working with camera crews while trying to do your job was an experience—where I saw a hazard, they saw great shot. In this process, I became interested in public awareness and noticed how there was a need for a holistic and integrated approach to fire management. How little the public knew about wildfires. The need for relationships between the public and wildland firefighters. Learning that fire is not always bad, but rather a part of the life cycle of natural ecosystems (such as fynbos).
I saw how new life came from what was once a disaster site.
Most firefighters hate mop-up, but I loved it, as this is where I got to learn more about fire behavior, talk about the benefits and risks that came with it, and evaluate how we can respond appropriately based on the scenario. My very first chopper flight awoke the 9-year-old girl in me, getting excited for everything I saw. I felt more enthusiastic having my Supt next to me, she explained how we could use this opportunity to spot safety zones and plan our strategies and tactics.
Another moment I’ll never forget reminded me of the dangers that come with the job. Working a tough shift, with the sun baking us and the weight of our equipment tugging on our backs and shoulders, we managed to suppress more than what was expected of us. As the evening approached, a sudden wind-shift occurred and in a split second what seemed like a solid safety zone turned into a trap room filling up with smoke. With no view of what was in front or behind us, we were unsure where to go. We realized our Supt, who had gone to scout and plan our new approach and update other crews on the radio, was in the area that was now on fire. With smoke everywhere, no one could see her, and with the wind increasing, smoke slowly started to smother the oxygen around us.
In that moment, I told everyone to lay down. Laying on the ground holding onto each other’s hands, little embers fell on our clothing, and we helped each other put them out. Everyone was so calm and silent. The wind changed again and we could see our way out; we quickly moved to our exit point. You would expect someone would cry, but no one said anything. Everyone just waited, waiting for a response from our Supt. When her voice finally came through the radio, we were all filled with joy, as though we all hadn’t just faced death. Thinking about it right now, I remember more laughter than horror.
Remembering an icy cold night and a rocky two-hour nap, those moments made me appreciate the little things in life, like a warm meal and bed. Realizing how important it is that we take care of our environment. Walking in the mountains thinking back to a younger me, who would have never thought she would be walking here. How my perspective and relationship has changed towards nature.
Frequent fires are mostly caused by uninformed humans—as a wildland firefighter, the love for nature is just something you want to share with everyone. I want that for the youth in my area, to get the opportunity to experience the beauty of nature, to be able to equip them with that knowledge. At the age of 18, I had my very first hike—this is just the reality for many kids, resulting in high crime levels and drug abuse in our community. I was lucky enough to be part of a project called “Seat at the Table,” creating awareness about climate change and how we need to take care of our environment. Through this process I got an idea for a ‘wildfires tour project’ with the objective to create Firewise communities, aiming to change community behaviour, promote a love for nature by creating fun day or 3+, where people get to feel like a firefighter. This will help transfer knowledge on wildfire behaviour, resulting in reducing unwanted ignitions.
But all my planning came to a stop when my mom lost her job recently. Living solely off the money I earned as a firefighter wasn’t enough to feed us and cover basic needs. That truth broke me when I came home to an empty fridge, pretended I had already eaten and went to bed. The next day, I needed money to get to work, my mommy ran around to collect money to get me there and for some food for my shift. On my break, I realized my family didn’t have food and here I was eating. I had to let go of my dream. I just couldn’t allow my family to starve for my dreams. I cried hard that day.
You see, a woman only cries three times in her life: the day you were born into this world, the day you lose someone you love, and the day you fail to succeed. And I failed that day.
I ended up working in a factory. Months passed by and I was nagged by the thought that I can’t give up like this. The next day, I didn’t go to work, I walked all day and thought about my life, what it is that I want to achieve. This led me to study at False Bay College, where I am currently studying “Safety in Society.” I truly wanted to do a different course that was more about wildland management, but my funds couldn’t cover it.
A firefighter’s job doesn’t only include working on fire. It includes many other projects like creating fire breaks. I thought fighting fires was hard on one’s body—I’ve learnt every job is important regardless of its status, if you are clearing plants or raking leaves (also hard on one’s body). If it’s working towards fire prevention, you should still have a proactive approach towards it, not be negligent.
We had a case where a massive fire occurred, and it burnt down 1000+ houses. Firefighters worked endless shifts, a few had injuries due to exhaustion. When it finally seemed like it was coming to an end, another team from a different organisation was sent to check for hot spots. They didn’t work properly as they underestimated the importance of good mop-up and the next day there was a fire call for the same area and one firefighter cried, literally. It’s the worse feeling, heartbreaking. Negligence to any task can lead to destruction, loss of productivity, and loss of opportunity that inevitably follows in extensive harm to environment, social and economic. Everyone in their own specific area of legal authority plays an important role in various duties and obligations to reduce this harm.
As a firefighter your eyes change. While walking with my friend on our usual trail, instead of enjoying the beauty of nature I found myself giving her a lecture. Walking with her before I became a firefighter, we’d walk in silence or talk about how lucky people were to be able to live around all these plants. Now when I walk through fire adapted ecosystems that haven’t been properly burned, all I can see is unwanted fuel loads that will contribute to an uncontrolled fire. I start searching for safety zones if a fire were to occur in that area and assess what path would be our escape route. I notice areas that need firebreaks and areas we shouldn’t take as escape routes. “We should report these issues to the landowner,” I complained to my friend, “They need to carry out prescribed burning. They should start removing invasive alien vegetation and other vegetation.”
She looked at me and said, “SHARNE!? You like the nature police, I don’t understand half of what you are saying.”
Walking in my area in my uniform, children used to get excited when they saw me coming. My neighbors asked how a little girl like me carries those heavy pipes or, “Do they just give you ladies light duty?” The first time my crew came to a firebase, the men thought we were there to clean it. It was a fight to get them to understand that we can do the job, too. Many people couldn’t see someone like me do this job. It never got me discouraged because if I ever allowed someone else’s thoughts to determine my future, I would have never succeeded at anything.
If I had the opportunity to speak to 18-year-old me, I would tell her to stay strong. Keep holding onto your goals. Listen to your Superintendent, everything she’s going to teach you will come to great use in your job and life. You are going to meet terrible people that will break you down physically and emotionally in this field; know that in your suffering there is new growth, lessons, and victory. Suffering will give birth to resilience and will make you into a great firefighter. There will be times of great joy and you are going to meet inspiring people, too. Learn from them, appreciate every opportunity. You must build a mindset where only a few people’s words are considered important to you, and the rest must wash away. Always remember this to never get comfortable in your situation, because it will stop you from growing—so keep placing yourself in uncomfortable environments. Trust me, that’s how we grow.
To the many other women in this field, yes, there may come a time when you will feel tired after long consecutive shifts, maybe even emotionally broken. Its ok. Go take a shower and warm meal. Then, when you are lying in bed, calm your mind and remind yourself that you are phenomenal woman, valuable. You won’t allow yourself to give into self-pity but instead you’ll allow the beast out. Every woman has a crazy side—that side where no one can mess with her—so let her out. The next day when you wake up, you’ll forget the old and embrace the newfound strength and wisdom that came with that suffering.
Like every day has its night and you must find your driving purpose that allows you to keep moving. The only person stopping you from achieving your goal is you.
What I have learnt is the body is always tired; there’s this part of you that may question why you are doing this. You’ll always have the will to do the task others can’t. Not only to fight fires or work in fire prevention, but you build better relationships with a positive attitude. You can open doors to create opportunities and personal skills. Soon your job won’t just feel like a JOB, but instead it will start to feel more like your playground, meaning you’ll enjoy it and be excited for every day that you have the privilege of being there.