When the south-easter howls through the dry Cape fynbos, firefighters don’t just battle blazes – they also come face to face with death
By Ilana Prak
I can’t see a thing. Only the flames through the thick, roiling smoke that races towards us. The noise is deafening: chattering tongues of flame and a roaring wind. Where do you run when surrounded by a five-metre-high wall of fire?
It’s a typical brush fire; we’ve been called out to support an exhausted team in the Boland. Fortunately we have been trained to scope out the area, note the closest escape route and identify it with beacons in case we’re forced to flee. And luckily there’s a big dam 200 m to the left of the dirt road.
“Where are you? And where’s the skid unit?” I shout to Lawrence, one of the contract workers. The skid unit is a bakkie with a pump on the back, used in brush fires. But the bakkie is parked up the road, on the other side of the flames, and the south-easter is so strong the fire has jumped the road and is now storming in our direction.
My priority is my team. At this point I’m not even thinking of my family. In fact, in circumstances like these the only thing on my mind is the blaze. Jeffrey, the bakkie driver and pump operator, is running next to me. Actually he’s stumbling more than running. The heat is unbearable and the air is thick and hot from the ash and smoke.
I hear the helicopter pilot’s voice from the two-way radio in my breast pocket. “One hundred metres straight and then left,” he says, directing us to safety from above. The chopper has blasted a path in front of us with water from the dam.
“Another 100 metres,” the voice encourages us. I feel the hot steam from the water against my eyelids. I stumble, but Jeffrey grabs my jacket and hauls me upright. Suddenly it’s easier to breathe. We’re through the worst of the smoke and I can see the lights of the water tanker. I collapse against one of its wheels. Only now do my children’s faces fill my mind . . .
As the shift leader at the fire scene, the first thing I have to do is brief my officer about the events of the day. We then return to the assembly point and once we’ve made sure everything is under control it’s back to the base.
In the women’s showers I rinse off the night’s soot. For 10 years the other three female firefighters and I had to share the men’s bathroom. But these days we have our own. Afterwards my team and I usually hang out in the kitchen and cook: scrambled eggs with viennas or toasted sandwiches.
We’re allowed to sleep between 10 pm and 7:30 am, but have to be dressed and ready in one-and-a-half minutes if another fire breaks out. We’re given medical training, from basic first aid to full paramedic qualifications. I’m on level three: an advanced emergency assistant. That means I can stabilise patients and administer certain medicines including those for diabetes, asthma and pain.
An important part of this job is to stabilise the wounded as fast as possible. So first up when I get to a scene I have to identify those who’ve been most seriously injured – they’re the first to be moved.
I check for a pulse and whether the injured can talk. If they can’t talk and possibly can’t breathe, I give them an oxygen mask. If they can breathe on their own, I assist them with an oxygen cylinder. If there’s no pulse a heart-lung massage must be applied. Next, bleeding is stopped and burn wounds are treated at the scene. Burns must be cooled and sterilised as soon as possible so we use gauze treated with a sterile gel. It’s weird – I don’t get emotional when I’m at a scene. You have to keep your distance or you’ll never make it.
I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter. Don’t laugh, but the TV character Groenie die Draak was my hero. Now I am my two daughters’ hero – they think I’m wonderful because I put out fires.
Every year between 1990 and 1995 I applied to become a firefighter, and each time I was told there were no places for women. Then I heard the policy had changed . . .
In-service training lasts three months. You start as a cadet, studying fire theory, doing drill work and training to get fit. Once you’ve completed all of this successfully, you become a junior firefighter.
My favourite part of the job is car accidents, although I also enjoy house fires. I love the adrenalin – the intense heat, the action and the huge speed at which the fires burn. When I was 16 I was in a serious car accident. I was trapped in the wreckage and injured my neck. I could feel there was something wrong with my legs.
The first rescue unit on the scene was the fire brigade. The way they worked with me convinced me this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. They were so professional. They treated me so carefully and reassured me at every point. That’s when I knew for sure I wanted to be a firefighter. Today, rescuing people from the jaws of a wrecked car gives me never-ending satisfaction.
Ilana Prak (36) is the first woman to have qualified as a firefighter in the Western Cape. For the past 14 years she’s worked at the Goodwood Fire Station in Cape Town, where she’s a senior firefighter.