Description: Wildfires cost the economy millions of Rand annually. They also cause loss of lives and livelihoods, with severe implications for not only commercial sectors, but also those least able to afford such losses, the rural poor. This situation focused attention on the need to establish an integrated plan for fire management, where speed of response and adequate ground and aerial support to fight fires, coupled with preventative fuel-reduction strategies, would reduce the losses caused by unwanted and uncontrollable fires. The result was the establishment of the Working on Fires Programme in 2003.
This national programme serves as a multi-departmental, multi-disciplinary government and private sector response to address the devastating effects of fire in informal settlements and assists the National Disaster Management Unit to meet this challenge.
The programme is implemented by the Forest Fire Association a non-profit organisation in Mpumalanga. Three regional cluster offices are located in Nelspruit, Stellenbosch and Shafton. Shafton services Kwa-Zulu Natal, Free State and Eastern Cape. Nelspruit services Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, while Stellenbosch services the Western and Southern Cape. Forty-four firebases, accommodating 22 handcrews and 8 co-ordinating and dispatch centres are located around the country. Beneficiaries come from communities that they serve. Nationally, firefighting effectiveness has been enhanced, using labour intensive methods that provides training and empowerment to disadvantaged communities across the country. Prior to the programme, no national baseline dataset was available to measure the total number of fires, hectares affected, value of damage, and livelihoods affected. The reporting structure in place will in the long term contribute towards the ability to realistically measure the affects of unwanted fires.
Innovation: A key innovation is the use of early detection/rapid response techniques used in forest fire fighting to reduce the magnitude of informal settlement fires.
Effectiveness: Currently 891 persons are actively employed within the programme and 129 women are on extended leave as a safety precaution. To date, 1193 unemployed men and women have being trained. Of these 95 firefighters have been promoted to crew leadership positions after passing internationally recognised level one Crew Leader training, effectively placing them in the position of being responsible for the crew's safety, operation, discipline, morale, fitness and general wellbeing. Of these, 26 have gone on to complete intense level two Crew Leader training and subsequently 10 level two Crew Leaders have been placed into positions as trainee regional managers, physical training officers, safety officers, and transport management.
Poverty Impact: Crew leaders, fire fighters and regional managers earn on average R2.050, R975 and R5 000 per month, respectively. A new world has been opened to previously unemployed people and some of them have left the programme and gone on to be employed by South African National Parks and other environmental organisations where they utilise skills they have acquired at the Working for Fire programme.
Sustainability: A budget of R19.5 million for 2003/04, R35 million for 2004/05, R40 million for 2005/06 and R44.5 million for 2006/07 has been set aside by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Working for Water programme (WfW). Oversight is provided by WfW and the National Disaster Management Unit in Department of Provincial and Local Government.
Replication: The model can be rolled out to provinces that experience devastating fires where the programme does not exist, but a key constraint will be funding and management capacity as the FFA is already stretched to its limit.