Fighting a Veld Fire (by Kurt Druzgal)

expat life Pretoria South Africa

If you would have asked me 10 years ago where I would be today, the answer definitely would not have been South Africa.  But once again I would like to thank my wonderful wife and BV for expanding my horizons to an amazing experience.

Special thanks to Heather Salgot for many of the incredible veld fire photos in today’s post.

I was excited to make it down to South Africa to reunite with some people that I have worked with in the past and looked forward to meeting new colleagues.  I was also looking for more experience working on such a massive construction site and dealing with emergency situations.  Kusile and the surrounding area have not disappointed in either of these categories.  This plant will be the 4th largest in the world, and you have the opportunity to see any part of construction in progress.  There are excavations, chimney construction, massive cranes, man basket work, radiological testing, etc., etc., and 15,000 people making it all happen.

The emergencies that I have been exposed to on-site have been a couple lost fingers or injuries sustained that resulted in the loss of a finger. While these are by no means minor for the person losing a finger, it is the injuries off-site that have been more than I was expecting.  During my first week, we responded to a 17 car pile-up which had two fatalities and closed a major interstate type road for 4-5 hours in both directions.  It can be overwhelming to think about the situations encountered here, but you focus on what you can do to help and increase your sense of appreciation for things you’ve taken for granted in the states. A recent response really made me really put into perspective where I am and how rewarding of an experience this can be.

The site’s fire department got a call that a nearby farm was in danger from a grass fire.  Granted, these grass fires, known locally as “veld fires”, become almost mundane to see here in South Africa. It’s common in the dry, fire season, to be driving down the road and have flames licking along the field next to you, but they eventually go out on their own.  It is still really something to see at night, and when we first arrived, it was winter and the beginning of fire season. Our adrenaline response took awhile to allow us to view these fires calmly.

Rarely are the fires put out with fire-fighting resources.   The local farmers burn their fields to clear the land even though they are really not supposed to.  The flames don’t really get that high unless they get into some higher bush or trees.  The concern from this fire was the farm, livestock (especially the horses) and its close proximity to our project/site.

Fire Truck and Discussion at Beginning veld fires grass fires South Africa

The call came in around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon.  The safety team and the site fire department responded to the farm.  It wasn’t long before we found the horses and corralled them into a field that was safe from the fire.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

The local farmer then said that we could start putting out the flames with the branches from a nearby tree.

Uh……………  really?

We’re going to put out fire…with fuel?

Well, despite your better judgment, you learn you have to adapt to whatever available tools and methods in your situation, so we all grabbed a branch and started to swat the fire. As you can see, the branches are live, with leaves. Believe it or not, once you got the hang of it, it worked quite nicely.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

Granted you couldn’t use this method to put out a flame a few feet high, but you could easily stop the 1-2 foot high flames that were headed towards the farm.  The farmers themselves actually make their own fire swatters.  It generally something like a few flaps of rubber on the end of an old shovel handle.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

Farmer with homemade fire swatter

Meanwhile, the fire truck finally made its way out to the field on the freshly burned ground and made short work of the rest.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

Excitement and maybe a little pride ran through the team; we had saved the farm and the horses; our job was done.   The other fire was meandering toward a non-threatening area.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

Or so we thought.

A safety team member called on the radio from another nearby farm as she was trying to wrangle in a herd of goats with kids that were in danger.  So off we went with the trucks to save the goats.  When we arrived, the remaining goats were safe and the fire team waited to see what the fire was going to do.  The farmer reported that he was missing 22 kids (baby goats, that is).

expat life Pretoria South Africa

The fire chief wanted to see what was over the hill, so two of my colleagues and I drove around the field and headed along the fence line to see.  The driver was hesitant to drive through one area because one line of the fire was close to coming across the “road”.  We decided to do it anyway.  After running out of road and seeing that there really wasn’t any other fire over the hill we headed back.  And sure enough in the ten minutes we were gone the fire had jumped the dirt road .

expat life Pretoria South Africa

It had crossed and our path still had a couple burning patches and smoldering cow pies.  We braved the crossing successfully and met up with everybody else.  We decided to move to another area and try to douse this leg of the fire.  We all got out while the official fire team finished off this leg.

One of the most interesting things about this spot was the grasshoppers.  The fire had a pattern.  It would smolder and burn low to dry out the next clump, and then suddenly burst into a huge flame, before dying down again to repeat the process.  During this, the wind was really kicking up and when the fire would flare, the air would fill with grasshoppers launching themselves away from the flames, launching straight into me.  Here I was, in the middle of a burning field in South Africa, getting pelted with grasshoppers.  You can’t help but be amazed at some things like that.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

Once that fire was doused we moved on to a section that we would be at for the rest of the night.  The fire had gained some momentum and was also getting into some bushy and tree covered area.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

expat life Pretoria South Africa

This was a long front of fire and we had to make sure that it did not get behind us again and trap us.  What was amazing to me was that once the fire had passed though you could drive on the freshly burned ground only after 15 minutes or so.   We now had reinforcements, as firefighters from another nearby plant had come to join the effort.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

expat life Pretoria South Africa

The flames were much higher and burned more consistently.  Even though the fire was put out by the water, sometimes it would smolder and ignite again, so you had to stomp out some patches by foot.  The fire truck could not make it to all the areas, so the smaller “skips” (4×4 trucks outfitted with a water tank and pumps attached to pressure washer type nozzles) worked much better.

expat life Pretoria South Africa

expat life Pretoria South Africa

expat life Pretoria South Africa

expat life Pretoria South Africa

We battled for a long time on that line and eventually set a fire break of our own ahead of the oncoming flames.  It worked well and smothered a small portion.  It was going into night and the fire just kept going, but we eventually saw that it would end at a nearby corn field with no further danger to farm, livestock or site, and called it a day.

It was dark and we all stuck around for a short time to talk about the day’s events.  It was unforgettable, and yet somehow I know it is just one more drop in the bucket of experience collected here in South Africa.

About Kurt Druzgal

expat life Pretoria South Africa

Kurt Druzgal

Kurt's weakness at work is his love for construction machinery, like this 1200 ton crane.

Kurt’s weakness at work is his love for construction machinery, like this 1200 ton crane. Kurt is 5’11, so you can see the height of that tread he’s standing next to.

Kurt Druzgal is Traveling Marla’s much better half. His career as a safety manager for an international engineering, consulting and construction company takes them to various parts of the United States and abroad. He is currently working in South Africa for a few years. His business card has a lot of fancy initials, like CSP, MS, CHST, etc., and although some of his certifications are very difficult to achieve, he’s actually a very modest, hard-working guy from western Pennsylvania who quotes Waterboy (a little too excessively) and loves his mama (oh, wait, that’s another darn Waterboy quote, but also true). Kurt goes along with many of Marla’s adventures under protest but claims he’s happy to have done them afterward. She thinks this is mostly true. Kurt likes potatoes. Marla thinks he likes them too much. Maybe this is simply because Marla hates potatoes. She cooks them anyway, despite also hating to cook. Before any new adventure, much potato bribery occurs.

3 Comments on “Fighting a Veld Fire (by Kurt Druzgal)

  1. Wow, truly amazing and scary! I can only imagine how hot it is generally and plus the heat from fire. Much different from the fires we get here in Western Canada (usually they’re forest fires).

  2. AWSOME POST KURT!!! What an exciting experience! I can’t imagine running around trying to put out a large grass fire with a tree branch! Hahaha, I guess I have actually tried that; not with any success tho!! Great post! Miss you guys!!!!!!

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