Wild fires, fire fighters and volunteers – the dream team?

Wild fire season is in full force, with fire fighters and volunteers uniting surely this is the dream team of extinguishing? Some disagree.

Hot off the press you’ll see amazing photos of large wild fires. To see photos of the magnitude of these fires is one thing, however to be a fire fighter on the front line must be quite another. Due to the location of many of these fires the fire fighting conditions are challenging at best, fire fighting equipment may not be up for the job at hand and due to the vast size of these fires and the ever changing weather conditions, the volume of fire fighters required in crisis mode can surely only be met by a large number of volunteers to assist the teams in extinguishing?

Many full time fire fighters disagree on the validity or merit of volunteers for numerous reasons including perceived lack of training according to the types of fires in the local area, opportunity for over-time, safety due to fire equipment, union issues, reliability etc.

“It absolutely beggars belief that the Fire Service is asking for volunteers.The job of a fireman/woman is a job that needs extensive training and commitment,and not a job to play at.” @Koskid

With FireBug’s offices in Cape Town, South Africa we are only too aware of the huge number of wild fires  (or bush fires as they are called in the Southern hemisphere) occurring locally and the different mind-set there seems to be here towards volunteers. As this article is being written, Cape Town is experiencing it’s worst wild fires in a long time. Just search for the hashtags #CapetownFire #Capefire #MuizenbergFire #houtbayfire #noordhoekfire  to see what we are talking about. One volunteer organisation known as the Volunteer Wildfire Services @vwsfires is assisting the local Fire & Rescue Services with up to 40 volunteers at any given hour, as right now Cape Town is in crisis mode.

News 24 reports “Multiple teams from Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), Working on Fire (WoF) and the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) have dispatched more than 400 firefighters over the course of two days. In addition, five helicopters, including two water bombers, one spotter and a helicopter from the Department of Defence, have been up in the air since yesterday trying to contain the fire”.

Luckily, you don’t need to be a volunteer fire fighter to help, as the general public have rallied around the teams with offerings of food and water to keep them strong, showing outstanding community spirit. Even Uber taxis have been helping with dispersing the food through UberASSIST – volunteers of a different nature.

With many worldwide fire departments stretched to the maximum dealing with day to day fires, it comes as no surprise that wildfires would call on volunteers to assist. In many countries there are dedicated Voluntary Wildfire Departments (VWD). In fact The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates that volunteer firefighters save communities in the United States more than $128 billion a year.

Historically the vast majority of fire fighters have been volunteers and done remarkable work in extremely challenging situations. (Some countries still have a predominately volunteer service), this dates back to ancient Rome in 6 AD, the first large organized force of firefighters was the Corps of Vigiles.

‘Niggles’ between contractors vs volunteers is acknowledged within the industry worldwide and is a topic likely to get even the most relaxed fire fighter heated up about however, when you focus on the bigger picture the successful containing and extinguishing of bush fires in many countries proves volunteers are an absolute necessity to support the full-time fire fighters. When the contractor teams are taking a much needed break, the volunteers are covering and vice versa. The end goal is the same.

Having discussed this issue with a reputable urban fire fighter in the UK he says

 if a volunteer Fire Service is appropriately supported and effective recruitment ensures conscientious and accountable individuals come forward then they can provide a valuable and skilled support network for a Fire Service when spate conditions arise.”

Addressing some of the criticisms volunteers face, Nick Cunningham-Morat of VWS said that their organisation is born out of the need to support the local area with wild fires specifically, everyone who lives in and around Cape Town knows that fire is part of the lifestyle. That’s why year after year the numbers of volunteers grow to meet the demands and at present are somewhere around 170 with many new recruits volunteering to start training in April/May. He says it’s just the “nature of the environment”

VWS supports Cape Nature and SAN Parks, with 3 different bases the organisation is responsible for different types of fire protection from first response through to follow up teams, depending on the location.

Breaking with the belief that volunteer fire fighters are not trained, Nick says that 50% of all budget is spent on training with recruits starting in April/May and in training until October/November. Members have to complete mandatory training, scenario sessions, an internationally recognised fitness assessment and theory test before they are awarded active status and able to go onto the fire line. This means that every season there are people who are not on the line because they have not successfully met these rather high standards.

According to one twitter follower “Volunteers are always critical to major incidents and in this case the benefits are clearly evident #CapeTownFire” @LyndonZA

Another well-known and hugely successful volunteer service is the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI), established in 1824 and going strong today with over 31,500 volunteers this is a charity organisation which assists with all sea related safety and have saved more than 140,000 lives.

So whether you agree with volunteers or not, there is a specific need which is being met in Cape Town right now and worldwide with similar terrains whereby volunteers are making a huge difference and are truly appreciated for the work they do. Heroes – if you agree, please DONATE either your time or money to VWS and keep the teams kitted out, growing and well trained: www.vws.org.za

See more articles related to volunteering as a fire fighter and the causes and effects of wildfires:





Cape Town on Fire – A community in Crisis. A beautiful, short video showing the amazing work our fire fighters have done and the amazing community of Cape Town who rallied behind supporting them.

Lives were lost during these 5 days of wild fires but due to the bravery and unstoppable nature of the South African Fire Fighters, many more lives, animals and property were saved. Thank you!