VIDEO: Singeing fires and singing firemen
Here’s a clip from the moment the Times Select team heard singing voices emerge from the flames
How do you find a team of firefighters in the middle of the night as flames burn across a 100km front? Listen for the singing.
A Times Select team came across them at 8pm on Tuesday, their voices emerging from pockets of flames ravaging timber estates on the rural back roads of the Seven Passes region.
Behind Groenkloof Rif Senior Estate on the edge of George a team of 19 Working for Fire staffers were toiling with rakes and “beaters”.
Their leader, Shakes Nshwanti, stood in the middle of a smouldering valley, a dust devil of glowing embers swirling around him.
Nshwanti walked out with a friendly greeting, explaining the team had been dropped off in the morning with a simple instruction: “Protect the old-age home.” And they had succeeded.
“We prevented this fire from going up there. Now we are just controlling and maintaining the line and patrolling,” he said.
Earlier in the day, it seemed impossible that anyone could be in this area. Two helicopters were circling a massive column of smoke, dumping water on the edges of the fire. Nshwanti’s team was underneath them.
Asked how his men managed keep their morale high after more than eight hours of hard labour in extreme conditions, he said: “We are always like this. It’s the team spirit. As the team leader, I always motivate my guys. As you can see, we are still singing.”
He did not know whether they were going to be relieved by another team or have to work through the night. Other teams are in similar situations.
He said that although this week’s Garden Route fires were huge, they were not yet on the same scale as the flames that ravaged the area in June 2017.
“We are expecting rain in this evening, but it seems that the weather is not favouring us. Since these are plantations that are burning it still can [escalate],” he said.
Out of the dark, one of Nshwanti’s commanders arrived with the news that they could withdraw. Drops of precipitation had started falling from a mist band that was advancing on a clear, starlit night.
Nshwanti and his team from Stellenbosch headed down the escape route they had prepared, singing more loudly than ever at the prospect of heading home.
At the bottom of the hill, at a tarred road, the team broke into dance before their leader thanked them for their attitude, given the conditions, and for their hard work.
They clapped hands in a synchronised style and asked the journalists present to join them in prayer.
As they drove off, the rain started falling in waves over the Outeniqua mountains.