Head of Operations: Fire and Rescue Service, Arlene Wehr, has helped to coordinate and lead the response to the Table Mountain fires. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)
Head of Operations: Fire and Rescue Service, Arlene Wehr, has helped to coordinate and lead the response to the Table Mountain fires. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

What it takes to remain calm in heat of moment – Cape Town’s female firefighters

By Francesca Villette Time of article published Apr 21, 2021

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Cape Town – Women at the forefront of battling the latest raging Table Mountain fire have attributed discipline, physical fitness and a strong mindset to getting them through the moments when they came face-to-face with danger.

The fire, which forced residents, UCT students, and nearby businesses to evacuate, is under control but still being monitored for flare-ups.

More than 150 firefighters and volunteers remained on the ground, as flames above Newlands Forest were still visible from Constantia yesterday morning.

Finishing her shift at 1am yesterday, Baigum Abrahams and her crew from the Mitchell's Plain Fire Station were dispatched to Philip Kgosana Drive, as the fire moved along Devil’s Peak on Monday.

She said from the minute they received the call, she knew it was serious, as they were called out of their jurisdiction to help.

Baigum Abrahams, two-time female winner at the SA Annual Toughest Firefighter competition. Picture: Supplied

Their aim was to protect properties, which they risked their lives for amid high temperatures and wind speeds of at least 30km/h.

Abrahams said the fire took less than a minute to spread across roads, to eventually seriously threaten houses.

At one point, the fire got so close to damaging property, that the grass of a Walmer Estate home caught alight.

The 26-year-old mom, who is also a two-time toughest female winner of the SA Annual Toughest Firefighter competition, said the mind races in pressured moments, and this is when you rely on training and composure.

“The fire was about three metres from the property. Being up there is hot, your visibility is limited, and communication is compromised.

“Not being able to see or even breathe properly with all the smoke around you ... We were working hard.

“Being a firefighter is very physically demanding. You need to be fit and strong. You're walking up with PPEs, a hose and equipment,” Abrahams said.

In those challenging moments, you need to remember what your goal is and put into action the plans to achieve it, she said.

“You've got to get to the fire at a good pace and try your best to put it out efficiently.

“One is not only fighting fire, one is constantly having internal battles that you have to fight. It’s human nature to run away from fire – animals do it all the time and here we are – running towards it,” she said.

City of Cape Town incident commander Arlene Wehr, the first female to progress through the firefighting ranks to be a district head, said she was proud of the women who gave their all over the past few days.

On duty at the same time as Abrahams, Wehr said the fire presented many challenges, as lives and properties were constantly at risk.

“It is still a tough job for a female because you need to be physically fit. At the end of the day, it’s just dedication and commitment. I am really proud of the females, we are leaning on about five percent of the staff complement so, yes, we are getting there.

“The women, in their various ranks, for this particular fire, did really well. We had female station commanders and platoon commanders at the fire.

“There was no pulling back ‘because I am a female’. They work just as hard and get the necessary respect for that,” Wehr said.

Cape Times

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