Sailors from the maritime branch of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) have been doing battle against raging mountain fires threating property in the Cape Peninsula.
Speaking to defenceWeb, Commander Adrian Dutton, Operations Officer at Naval Base Simon's Town, said that the SA Navy was called out to the nearby Da Gama Park suburb at 10:00 last Wednesday because a fire that started in Ocean View had burnt over the mountain and was threatening the naval barracks located there.
The City of Cape Town was already attending to the mountain fire on the Ocean View side of the mountain, but resources were stretched as they were still fighting the raging fires in the Cape Winelands and Somerset West area which had wrought havoc and already destroyed numerous houses, business premises and farmland.
Dutton, whose responsibilities include firefighting, protection and emergencies at the Fleet Command Head Quarters, was actually on leave, but immediately returned to the Base and activated Bush Fire Charlie.
“This is our highest state of fire-fighting readiness,” Dutton explained, “Because it is Navy ground, we must protect our own ground, so we recalled the ships’ teams. The ships’ personnel are highly trained to fight fires aboard ships, so they know what they're doing. We organise them into smaller teams and then we put them up into the mountain and they go and start fighting as ground teams.”
Around 120 sailors, whose normal places of work includes submarines, frigates and replenishment ships, were mobilised to fight the fire at Da Gama Park. Thereafter, in a coordinated response with the City, the City was able to bring more resources to try and combat the fire. However, as the fire was moving quickly, the military flats were in danger and some of the Navy members living there had to be evacuated.
“The City Disaster Management managed to assist us in getting it all under control,” Dutton said.
Whilst combating the fires in conjunction with the City, the Navy called in two Oryx helicopters operated by 22 Squadron at AFB Ysterplaat “because Navy property was in danger of being taken over by the fire.”
The Oryx helicopters, equipped with Bambi Buckets, arrived at about 14:30 that Wednesday afternoon to support the air team already provided by Working on Fire.
With ground teams working through the night, the Air Force helicopters recommenced their water bombing sorties on Thursday morning as a fire had started halfway up Simonskloof. Unfortunately, that fire started running up the mountain towards the Navy Signals School and Dutton said that the helicopters did an excellent job water bombing the fire there.
The fire also went down towards Palace Barracks and actually jumped the Simon’s Town main road and burnt some trees in Admiralty House gardens.
“We deployed a team there to sort those trees out and also right behind Admiralty House in Palace Hill. There was two flare ups there and we killed those as well,” Dutton said.
All day Wednesday, Thursday and again on Friday morning, the Navy and City fought the fires, assisted by helicopters from the Air Force and Working on Fire.
Dutton said that the firefighters could not use the traditional method of beating the fire as it was just too hot and the fire was spreading quickly: “We were actually using hoses from hydrants on the side of the road and we were just pumping water into it. Our two fire trucks were constantly out over the last two and a half days.”
The South African Medical Health Service (SAMHS) provided two ambulances which drove around, checking for smoke inhalation.
Dutton had high praise for his men and women fighting the blazes. “They were always out on the go, getting refilled and fighting the fire, they were exhausted. They had lots of adrenaline; they just wanted to keep on going back up into mountain to get this fire put. It was really great.”
“I had quite a lot of teams available to me for that two and a half days and I can commend everybody that was fighting that fire. It was hot and the wind was blowing, it wasn’t fun. But yes, the guys did an excellent job.”
Fortunately no property or lives were lost, but two members received minor burn injuries.
Dutton also noted the good cooperation the Navy received from local residents: “They are fully supportive, they have given us eye drops, given us food and water and all the good stuff. The residents were awesome.”
Suffering from a severe drought, the surrounding mountains are tinder dry and shortly before defenceWeb spoke to Dutton this past Monday, Navy teams were once again in action, fighting another fire in Da Gama Park.
“We’re going to have little flare ups as we go along now for the next couple of days because the mountain is still a bit hot. But we’re dealing with them now,” Dutton said.