Jennifer Fill

When American postdoctoral student and volunteer firefighter Jen Fill’s kit and uniform were stolen out of the boot of her car in Stellenbosch earlier in January, her first thought was not: ‘Am I safe?’, ‘Where is my other stuff?’ or ‘Is my car damaged?’

It was: ‘I need to replace everything as soon as possible so that I can get back on the fire line’.

Jen (28), who completed her training with the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) last year and responded to her first fire call in December, was devastated by the loss.

“My devastation was not just because I lost valuable items. It was because I lost what allowed me to see the various moods of fire in nature while working alongside my “yellow family”. My sense of urgency to re-kit myself stemmed from the knowledge that until I was equipped again, I couldn’t laugh and work with them on the line.”

Her uniform was found and as soon as the news about Jen’s misfortune spread, members of her home base in Jonkershoek started pledging money and items to replace what she had lost. Within 24 hours she was better equipped than before the theft.

“I wasn’t going to tell the team because I thought it was my problem to solve. But then it leaked on theWhatsapp group and people started responding… It felt as if the life was seeping back into me. I thought: ‘People care about me!’ I’ve never had a group of people react like that.”

Barely a day after receiving her new kit, Jen was part of one of the VWS crews responding to the fire blazing in Elgin. In less than a week, she had been on the fire line four times: Twice in Elgin and twice at the Simonsberg fire near Stellenbosch.

“In the USA, I was involved with prescribed fires. After experiencing several wildfires here, I’m beginning to appreciate the art of handling these two types of 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”. It is a perfect fit for her – a volunteer organisation she could join without needing prior experience or qualifications. All she needed was a passion to fight fires and a willingness to complete the necessary training.

“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.

“I’ve been amazed at what members sacrifice to be on the line. For instance, on Christmas Eve, these folks fought a huge fire until late in the evening, forgoing festivities with family and friends to protect local communities from a rapidly spreading fire.Even so, the hilarious banter and support didn’t miss a beat. That’s the kind of passionand commitment to community that’s the heart of the VWS.

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