The Juliet Crew: How SA’s first all-female fire crew battled Cape Town blaze
CAPE TOWN – They have been hailed as national heroes; an inspiration as women who work hard to reach their goals.
That’s why the story of South Africa’s first all-female fire fighting crew, fighting the devastating wildfire on Table Mountain, has gone viral.
The team is made up of women from previously disadvantaged backgrounds; over 90% of the crew members come from female-headed households in Philippi, Retreat, Mfuleni, Khayelitsha, Capricorn Park, Macassar, Lavender Hill and Bonteheuwel in the Western Cape.
Known as the Juliet Crew, the female firefighting crew was among the more than 170 fire and rescue workers and 125 Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) rangers who worked tirelessly to contain the Table Mountain fire that broke out on Sunday morning.
Wildfires are reasonably common in the mountains and peaks around Cape Town during the hot, dry summer months. Fuelled by strong winds, the fire ripped down and across the slopes of the mountain towards UCT and to nearby residential areas. Authorities said about 11 buildings were destroyed, while six firefighters were hurt.
Many buildings at the university were burnt, including part of a nearly 20-year-old library containing rare books and manuscripts on African studies. Other historic buildings nearby were also burnt including a 225-year-old windmill. Authorities estimate about 600 hectares of land had burned.
The crew was established in November 2019 through a partnership between NCC Environmental Services, Chrysalis Academy (where the first members of the team were recruited) and the Department of Health and Safety (EPWP programme).
Their first assignment was when a fire flared in Noordhoek in February last year. This year, they also assisted on three 24-hour deployments on the Jonkershoek fires which destroyed more than 13 000ha of vegetation.
Superintendent of the crew Kylie Paul says they go beyond just being firefighters. She says they are a family who supports each other and they know what is happening in each other’s lives.
For Sharne Martiz, being part of this team has given her more drive for her future and has taken her away from her community's daily life of gang violence, teenage pregnancy, youth unemployment and a high rate of poverty.
After spending almost 7 hours battling the inferno on the slopes of Table Mountain, IOL were able to speak with the crew’s superintendent during one of their breaks.
“We have been mopping up the fire, below Table Mountain. We were first deployed here at 8am. It has been a tough and devastating fire. It could have been worse but credit must go to all the agencies (firefighting crews) who are here. We are also grateful for the help and support from the public,” Paul said.
Dean Ferreira, who is the brains behind the all-women firefighting crew and Managing Director of NCC Environmental Services, says they are attempting to address the under representation of women in this sector while simultaneously providing life changing opportunities to vulnerable youth.
“Women are not adequately represented in this sector with many people still believing that firefighting is not a suitable occupation for women.”
“We are attempting to address this while simultaneously providing life changing opportunities to vulnerable youth. Over time, they will stand shoulder to shoulder – not male or female, just one,” Ferreira said.
Despite having an incredibly successful fire season, the crew is fighting a battle of their own; they need a permanent base of operations.
While the crew is supported by NCC Environmental Services, they are self-funded and rely heavily on donations and support from the public and other entities. They are temporarily based at the Vergelegen NCC FireBase.
“For this crew to continue to be sustainable they do need a permanent solution. Without a base, Juliet Crew will be required to travel in and out daily with all their equipment,” said brand manager for NCC Environmental Services, Charl Steenkamp.
“This poses a huge safety risk to the women as when they travel home from a fire they are exhausted and vulnerable,” he said.
If you wish to support the Juliet Crew you can contact them directly or visit their fund-raising page: https://www.backabuddy.co.za/.../juliet-crew-needs-a-home.