Franschoek. 130129. Darryl Ray, pilot of a fire helicopter explains the process of blazing fires. The base for helicopter refuelling is at Drakenstein Prison. Reporter Jason Felix. Picture COURTNEY AFRICA

Jason Felix

FLYING a helicopter through clouds of smoke and heat in between high mountain peaks is no job for the weak-hearted.

Ask Darral Rae. He has been fighting runaway fires on the Wemmershoek Mountains near Franschhoek since Sunday. Rae, 37, of Tulbagh, has been a helicopter pilot for wildfire service Working On Fire for seven years.

And summertime is prime flying time.

He helped battle the blazes in the Cederberg for almost two weeks before being dispatched to Wemmershoek straight after that.

“You need to be skilled and experienced at this (scooping up water). When you are doing a speed of almost 110km/h in these conditions you need to be at your best.

“The high mountains make it difficult, and you have to fly carefully in the thick smoke to avoid the mountain,” he said.

“I have been doing this for such a long time I don’t feel the danger anymore,” he said.

Firefighters and helicopters have been monitoring the fire which slowed down yesterday.

On Monday, winds of about 40km/h coupled with high temperatures and poor visibility worsened the fire but firefighters battled on relentlessly.

“We’re a great team of firefighters here. For the past two days I have been up in the air and it has been fun,” Rae said.

“I never get tired of fighting fires. I spent more than two weeks in the Cederberg and straight after I came to assist with this fire as well.

“This has been difficult, because the fire starts up and dies down at various times, as well as the high mountains we have to go in,” he said.

Rae said in a nine-hour day he dropped 1 200 litres of water at least 78 times a day and spent two hours in the air before landing at the incident command centre at the Drakenstein Prison to refuel.

“All of us do this out of passion and love for our job.

“Yes, it gets very hot up there, but we have a duty to save people’s lives and property.”

The 120 Western Cape firefighters have been bolstered by 54 extra personnel from the Eastern Cape. Four helicopters and 13 fire and rescue vehicles are monitoring the situation.