Fighting SA’s Worst Fire!

Hearts & Heroes

  • by onRoute
  • Nov 16, 2017
  • 401
  • News

What is your position and how many years have you been in the Fire Department?

I am the Station Commander at the Knysna Fire Department and have been for the past two years, but I have been a member of the fire service for the last 30 years.

Is this the worst fire you have had to fight?

Wayne Sternsdorf, one of the many brave souls who faced some of the worst flames the country has ever seen!

Yes, definitely! In my career spanning 30 years I’ve never seen anything like this.

What caused the fire?

It’s still being investigated at this stage.

What are some of the things you experienced that you never had before?

Helplessness at the sheer size of the fire. Normally you have a starting point from which you can start fighting – this time we didn’t know where to start! Unfortunately the five-pillars were aligned – these include severe drought, the humidity was low, strong berg winds were hot, dry and gusting, the vegetation was dry, the topography was 100% and the fire’s fuel load was just right. It just needed a spark and away it went!

When you were called up to fight explain how you felt?

Helplessness. The second call we got at 3am to go back because it had sparked up again, we were on our way and by the time we got there the fire had already met us half way! It’s difficult to describe the feeling – you are faced with this huge fire, incomparable to what you’re are used to. We had no point of attack on this one because, every time you attack, it’s blazing around and over you. When we realized the severity, our biggest priority become life preservation, rather than fighting the fire.

Did you see anything that took an emotional toll on you?

The desperation on people’s faces, members of the public were in complete panic mode, there was an overriding feeling of imminent doom. The look of, “Are we ever going to get out of this?”, and you feel just as helpless. Remember we all live in the area, so you’re also asking yourself “Is my family okay? Are my kids and animals and house safe?”, that all runs through your mind as well.

I was going for three to four days straight, with maybe three hours of sleep. But you have to just carry on. We had help from outside, but it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t rest.

What was the death toll in the area?

Seven people. One was a volunteer firefighter from Plett, from the wild fire unit, and another was a  forestry firefighter. The rest were civilians. For the extent of this incident to only have lost seven lives is phenomenal! Portugal’s recent fire was a third of the size and 67 lives were lost. So, if you look at it from that point of view, we did a sterling job! Houses can be rebuild, lives can’t!

What are some of the things you had to do in order to try and manage the disaster?

We had to think totally out of the box with this one. It really put us through our paces. When I was an instructor in city of Cape Town, you always taught candidates the “what if” situations – this was definitely one of those.

There was lots of multi-tasking and with the water shortage, being in the midst of a severe drought, we had to think of unique ways to get water with limited resources. That was a massive challenge. A lot of people pledged huge tankers that are normally used to transport milk, Nestle came forward and bought water to us this way.

How do your family feel about your job?

My wife is an ex firefighter so she fully understands. I have an extremely supportive family and a great support structure, my whole family rallied around me and were such a strength during this trying time. That gave me the ability to focus on my role during the fire.

Describe a difficult decision that you had to make while in the frontline?

There were too many! But the worst was really the decision to move away when it got too unsafe. When you thought you could stop a house from burning down, and then you had to get out and just watch it go up in flames. That’s a person’s whole life right there!

Are South Africans equipped for such a disaster?

This was the first Type One incident that we’ve ever experienced. The big one in Cape Town a few years back was a Type 3. So it definitely wasn’t your run of the mill fire. It took a lot and it’s where you see you’re training really kick in. I also had to take over from the Incident Commander, which was nerve wracking. It changes your perspective; you’re suddenly responsible for the whole incident. It’s quite overwhelming, where the long term effects of your decisions are felt throughout.

How have people come to the aid of local families who have lost everything?

Different volunteer organizations have been set up and the municipality have come to party in a huge way too. So many are still in the area and it’s amazing to see people dropping everything to assist. It has been extremely traumatic for lots of people, including us, the department, but we have to keep a brave and professional face.

Any person that stood out for you during these hard days of fighting?

All the crews I worked with, especially my crew at the station were absolutely fantastic. I don’t have anything but praise for my guys. They worked, they gave their all, they came in when they were needed. They were awesome, absolutely awesome! A special mention to My Chief Fire Officer, MR Clinton Manuel, who under a great amount of pressure made calculated decisions that not only effected the fire fighters, but the safety of every citizen of Knysna.  And don’t forget my wife, she was just awesome with her support, understanding and her just being there for myself and fellow fire fighters.

What character traits does one need to be part of an emergency services team?

It’s really not for everybody. You have to be a team player. You need to be able to think on your feet. You’ve got to have the passion and be willing to serve people. It’s a thankless job some days, you’re away from family on Christmas day, public holidays. You’ve got to want to do it. The bottom line is that it’s not for everybody and it’s definitely not just a job.

What is the emotional state of the community today?

A lot of people are still in panic mode. They see a bit of smoke, and then there is a wave of panic exacerbated by social media. It’s going to take a while. Social media has its positive impact, alerting people but it can also incite unnecessary panic. For now, we’ve been dealing with small smouldering areas in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere. We’ve got to respond. So we send people out there but it’s minor and doesn’t warrant the panic.

How has the department been affected by the fires?

It’s not over yet. Not for a while. For now we are staying on our toes. We’re in a drought situation, so we’ve got to be careful. When it’s over we’ll sleep for a week!

Your message to the public?

This was the biggest fire in the history of the country. It just takes a concerted effort from everybody to stay safe. Be responsible. Don’t create a fire hazard. Litter build-up is a fire hazard - simple little things like that. We all have to be responsible and think positively toward the environment - it’s not up to somebody else, we’ve all got to do our bit. Fire is everybody’s fight, not just the firefighters. And lastly, don’t mess with Mother Nature!


Disaster Fund banking details:

Bank: Nedbank
Account name: Emergency Fund
Account number: 1147920699
Swift code: NEDSZAJJ