Review: Volunteer Wildfire Services Open Day

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VWS Open DaySummer is here and with it comes sun, days at the beach and braais with friends and family.  But in Cape Town, summer also means fire season.  Hot dry days coupled with intense South East winds create the perfect conditions for wildfires on our mountains, such as the fire that raged on Signal Hill just two weeks ago.

This fire, like so many others, was fought through the night not just by those in the regular fire services but by an extensive team of volunteers. It is this extraordinary team of dedicated men and women which is celebrated in the VWS (Volunteer Wildfire Services) Open Day in Newlands.

The Open Day is a wonderfully fun day out for all ages, with truck rides and foam spraying, tugs-of-war, helicopter demos, abseiling, snake displays and more.  But it is also an eye-opening experience, demonstrating not only how raging fires are dealt with, but highlighting the dedication and hard work that is put into keeping our mountains in their natural and beautiful state.

VWS was established during the devastating fires of 1999 and 2000 and currently has 180 members stationed at Newlands, Jonkershoek and the South Peninsula.  The Open Day serves as an important avenue for recruiting new members.  Due to the nature of the work and the long hours put into fighting fires it is vital that the unit has extensive membership in order to rotate the workload, not least since the vast majority of these volunteers have full-time jobs or are studying.

Ren Watronski, for example, has just completed matric, and this year was his second as a volunteer firefighter. He describes the VWS as “a big, yellow family”.  Despite the dangers, he explained, there is a real thrill involved with the work. “It’s a great experience because you feel like you’re a part of something more and you’re giving back and helping keep your city beautiful.”

The members train throughout the year with fitness days and hikes in order to get used to the conditions in which they will be fighting fires, as well as undergoing scenario training to learn specialised skills.  Every year each firefighter has to pass a series of tough tests in order to re-qualify as a volunteer for the season, keeping the unit at a high standard.

A free event open to everyone, the Open Day aims to educate and create awareness about wildfires in Cape Town.  It also helps to raise support for the unit in order to keep it operational.  Completely non-profit, the unit relies on a small amount of funds from corporate sponsors and organisational partners (Table Mountain National Park and CapeNature), as well as individual donors and their own fundraising projects.

From the pancake stall, to the helicopter and firefighting displays, to the snake display and the fire truck rides one thing is abundantly clear: the volunteers are passionately dedicated to the service.  Every activity was run by volunteers in their yellow uniforms, ready and willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.

The Open Day, held every year in late November or early December, is a day to honour these brave and selfless men and women who do so much to protect us and the city we are proud to call home.

Janice Garman

The VWS Open Day took place on 29 November 2014 at Newlands Fire Base.  For more information visit www.vws.org.za.

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