We got everything loaded and were off. Along with the water tank, we had a few fire beaters, basically thin wooden poles with 2x2’ pieces of rubber attached to them for beating the grass to put out flames. There were 6 of use in the vehicle; we made up quite the formidable crew. Mark the retired engineer/children’s home director Englishman, Hans the electrical engineering consultant Dutchman, Darin the future petrol station owner American, Derrick the game lodge operator white South African, and 2 maintenance guys that work for Derrick black South Africans(one was named Jacob and I never caught the other guy’s name). Where was Kurt Russell from his Backdraft days when we needed him??
We drove off down the road, Hans and I hanging on for dear life in the back of the truck with no tailgate as Derrick bounced down the gravel road. About 15 minutes later, after talking to several guys along the way to find out where we were needed, we drove up to our first line of fire. There were some people already there that were dressed like firemen. I asked Mark who they were and apparently they were trainees in a program that helps young adults get an education, presumably in fire safety or something like that. Their uniforms were quite official looking, however the glorified Camel packs they wore didn’t seem to be very efficient in putting out the flames, sometimes 10-15’ high when consuming bushes and small trees. Derrick drove out into the bush and we started the pump and we took over. The high pressure flow from the water tank hose quickly knocked down the flames and the rest of us followed with the beaters and put out any small flames that sprung up again. We spent about 30 minutes putting out the flames in that field, but we could see that the fire was still raging in many other fields around.
Our tank was about empty, so we headed out to find a place to refuel. We found a nearby game lodge that graciously opened their gates and filled us up at their well. When we got back out on the road, we could see that the fire we had just fought was tiny compared to a nearby field. Because of all the fencing around properties here, it sometimes is confusing, even for locals, to know where to enter certain properties and how to maneuver around them. We saw a group of 4 other trucks with water tanks on the road ahead and joined them to see what the plan was. These were trucks from a bunch of local lodges. It was neat to see how people basically dropped everything they were doing in a time like this and did what they could to help their neighbors. With the fire jumping so many roads and burning on so many properties at one time, it was kind of chaotic as to who was organizing the efforts where. A few guys made calls to the land owners in the area and we all headed out after a plan was agreed to. We basically spent the next 2 hours working on different fire lines in a couple different areas. At times, fire was burning on both sides of us and it was difficult to see and breathe with all the smoke. We sometimes split up with the water machine going one way while the “beater people” headed the other direction. At about 6:30, after it was dark except for the flames, we were still out in the middle of a field when a truck came up and told us that they had started to back burn the other side of the section and were going to let the whole thing burn as there weren’t any buildings on the land. Our job was done at that point. Everyone was sweaty, covered in soot, hungry, and tired.
After 10 minutes of trying to figure out where we were and how to get back to the main road, we were headed back home. Remember how cold it gets when the sun goes down in SA? Hans and I got to experience what it feels like to ride in the back of a truck traveling down the road, dressed for warm weather, with outside temps probably around 50. After 20 minutes of bouncing around and my arms almost going numb from the cold, we arrived back at TYB. Everyone was safe, no one got hurt, and we all got a great workout! Derrick estimated that over 2,000 acres burned in the fire. We heard a rumor that a house had burned down, but no we talked to knew for sure. After a long shower and dinner, I was ready to sit down for a few hours and do nothing. This morning, my back and arms were quite sore from swinging the beater for hours. But nothing actually hurts worse than my butt, from bouncing around in the back of the truck thru fields and down gravel roads full of ruts. I’m still cleaning black stuff out of my ears, nose and eyes today and I’m sure my lungs have seen better days, but it feels great to have been able to contribute in our new community and I feel a little more South African than I did yesterday at this time.