Being a volunteer

It’s hard to describe how the thought of fire consumes you.

How you balance your other responsibilities with the desire to be part of the action. How you struggle to stay awake at work when you’ve been out on the fire line all night. How hard it is to say no to a call-out even when your body is screaming for rest. How proud you feel of a job well done. How humbled you feel when faced by the gratitude and generosity of the communities affected by fire.

Being a volunteer firefighter is not something you can feel lukewarm about.

“My whole life revolves around fire. Fighting it, waiting to fight it and planning in case we have to fight it,” says Ian Smit (47).

He is an accountant by profession and the financial partner at a matrass and bedding manufacturer. He is a husband and father of two teenage daughters. When he fights fires, he does it in his free time. Ian is a member of the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) and in the past week he had spent time on fire line at both the Elgin (Overberg) and Simonsberg (Stellenbosch) fires.

“Ijoined VWS as a way to give back to the community and because I love the outdoors and adventure, and this combines both.”

On paper VWS members don’t have much in common. They vary in age from students to people who are retired, they all have different day jobs and they live in towns and suburbs all over the Peninsula and Boland.

But what binds them together is quite significant – a desire to protect and preserve the environment, to give something back to the community and to be part of a passionate group of volunteers.

Carin de Villiers (58) from Paarl, former parliamentary affairs manager for Eskom, is no stranger to the VWS. Her two sons, both in their twenties, have been members of the organisation for a number of years. She and her eldest son Jacques both responded to call-outs to the Elgin fire as well as the Stellenbosch fire a few days later.

“The incredible amount of time and effort people, particularly young people, are putting into this organisation to help our environment has been a real eye-opener. They are dedicated and truly volunteers of the highest order,” says Carin.

It was also Carin who mentioned during a conversation about donations that “The generosity of South Africans is mind boggling. It is at times like this that I think the true spirit of this country is displayed”.

Businesses, schools, community groups and individuals become part of the story. Food, water, sweets and even personalised snack packs with pictures drawn on brown paper bags – people give freely. But as one volunteer said to a friend who had asked what was needed: “Why don’t you join and give your time?”

Theo van Rensburg (42), pack house manager on a farm near Villiersdorp, believes everyone van make a difference in fighting the “crazy fires roaring in the Western Cape”.

Jen Fill (28), an American post-doctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University, is no stranger to fires.

“In the USA, I was involved with prescribed fires. Although you can never truly control fire, you tend to have more control over prescribed fires: The art of completing such a ‘controlled’ fire lies in your ability to light it and work with the weather conditions and terrain that you have selected. You have picked the characters for this story and direct them as best you can.

“With a wildfire, you must take the story you are given with all the characters and conditions at the time, and try to make the story end in a good way.”

The VWS has become this native from Boston’s home, and the members her “yellow family”.

“What has impressed me most about the VWS is the dedication, selfless commitment and unconditional friendship of the team. Over the course of training, and especially on the fire line, I’ve realised that the irresistible call to participate is really because of the profound friendships and camaraderie that accompany a mentally and physically demanding experience.

“We laugh, we struggle, but we hold on as a team and try to give the story a happy ending.”