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Despite infinite preparation, firefighter and disaster management departments anticipate a tough fire season and more deadly infernos.

In the past 10 days, four people have died and more than 3600 left homeless after 810 homes were gutted in separate fires across the province.

As more firefighters have been dispatched to George to bring a wild fire under control, the spotlight has focused on stretched resources to battle the province’s deadly infernos.

The mercury spiked higher than 40ºC in some parts of the province and temperatures brought on by a heatwave will only ease on Tuesday, according to the weather bureau.

Anton Bredell, the Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, urged the public to be vigilant and refrain from starting fires.

This week, firefighters battled eight major fires across the province, including four wild fires in the Southern Cape that resulted in the death of firefighter pilot Nico Heyns while battling a blaze in the Garden Route. 

Two people in Hout Bay were so badly burnt they remain unidentified. Sango Nqeneka, 30, died in the Khayelitsha fire.

Extra resources have been dispatched to George. On Saturday, the fire was moving across the northern side of the Outeniqua mountains. Authorities were forced to close Montagu Pass.

George municipal spokesperson Chantel Edwards-Klose said while the Outeniqua Pass remained open, motorist should exercise caution and reduce speed to assist with the safety of firefighters working in the area.

Disaster management officials say despite preparations ahead of the season, they anticipated a tough season. This comes as unions representing firefighters are in dispute with the City of Cape Town over standby and overtime allowance which has put a strain on stations.

Xolani Diniso of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union said the city was offering members an increase on the standby allowance from 22% to 30%. He said such a tactic was being used to trigger a settlement agreement when the parties meet this Wednesday.

“They are doing this because the Fire Collective Agreement comes to an end in October. That means our members won’t be forced to stay at the stations while on standby and go home because they are not getting paid overtime and the employer is not saying anything about overtime. So come November 1, our members can go home at 5pm,” he said.

“They are making this offer because they know we are in the middle of fire season. They are not meeting basic conditions of employment.”

Diniso said this was a challenge for members, along with the use of trainee firefighters who do the work of fully fledged fighters at a lower pay.

“There are around 480 vacancies and all they do is employ seasonal firefighters on contract while the workload continues to increase, with not enough manpower.”

Last year, Bredell said fires in the province increased drastically, with 17000 in just three months.

Chief director: disaster management and fire and rescue services, Colin Deiner, said a lot of preparation had been done but added challenges always flared up with the number of fires increasing as temperatures heated up.

“We have over 30 aircraft that we contract as well as extra ground teams. There is a lot of work that gets done, but just when you think you have contracted enough the fires become more and more intense. We have, however, received more funding this year because we are anticipating quite a hectic fire season with the heat and the wind as it is,” he said.

“The informal settlements are a huge challenge and that is going to be difficult for us to manage, but we almost double our resources in the summer to contracting specialist ground teams, with the City having brought in extra seasonable firefighters. There is a massive amount of preparation that goes into it but this week we had eight major fires - four informal settlements and four wild fires - so it is challenging.

“We have what is called an integrated fire management system and that brings together everybody that has anything to do with wild fires - Cape Nature, SANParks, Working On Fire and other partners. We also include the South African National Defence Force. We have a system that places all these resources under one commander; when we have a major fire, and if we did not have that, we would be in a lot of trouble. People think we take a beating (during fire season) and we do, but I think if we did not have those systems in place we would have been in a lot more trouble.”

Working on Fire spokesperson Lauren Howard said: “We have about 600 firefighters in the Western Cape. We have national standby teams who are fully fit and ready to tackle the fire season, and our seasonal aerial resources will come in by end of November.

“For now, we have two water bombers and two Huey aircraft, five fire trucks and transport buses for the firefighters. With regard to the water situation, we try as much as possible to use non-potable water as well as for our aircraft.”

Weekend Argus