Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 1, 2016.

Global & Mobile

A community-based approach to wildfire fighting and mitigation in South Africa is making a difference in that country, and the model is being adopted by nations around the world


SOUTH AFRICA’S MOTTO, “Unity in Diversity,” applies just as aptly to the country’s geography as it does to its people. But no matter where you are in this nation of 55 million people, there are two stubborn constants: wildfire is prevalent, and jobs are not. The chaparral and shrubs of the Western Cape burn fiercely, as do the dry grasses and thickets to the north. Meanwhile, as recently as 2009, one in four South Africans was unemployed.

In a bid to address both of these issues, the South African government in 2003 piloted a program called “Working on Fire” (WoF), which recruits disadvantaged South Africans and, after extensive training, hires them as wildland firefighters. There are now 5,000 program participants stationed at 200 bases across South Africa; the stipends they collect help provide for more than 25,000 people, according to the organization. As a result of their training, program participants have secured permanent employment in disaster management organizations and within the environmental sector.

Over more than a decade, the program has been such a success at creating jobs and combating wildfire that Kishugu, the private organization that runs and manages WoF, has expanded rapidly throughout the world and now maintains operations in seven countries on four continents. By far its biggest presence remains in South Africa; Chile is the organization’s second-largest market, with about 1,200 firefighters.

One of the hallmarks of the program is its holistic approach to wildfire, or what WoF calls “integrated fire management.” WoF employees are involved almost year-round in every aspect of wildfire management, from outreach, education, and landscape management to early detection, suppression, and cleanup after an incident. The work is a blend of natural resource management, forestry, conservation, and firefighting, according to Val Charlton, division director of Public Benefit Organization at Kishugu.

“The land needs to be managed—I don’t think wildfire gets looked at this way in the United States, but I think this is the only sustainable way forward, especially as we encounter climate change,” Charlton told NFPA Journal during a recent visit to NFPA. “In terms of sustainability, you can’t just keep suppressing fires, because that’s not working. You have to look at it in a different way, at a landscape-management level.”

To bolster the prevention and mitigation link of the chain, WoF adopted NFPA’s Firewise Communities program in 2006 as a separate but related add-on to its program in South Africa. Firewise organizes neighborhood volunteers to take steps to reduce the risk of wildfire in their communities, such as clearing excess fuels from the landscape, maintaining defensible space around homes, and using fire-resistant building materials. WoF adapted that model to fit the needs of South Africa’s poorer and more remote areas. A decade after its launch, WoF’s Firewise program—separate from its firefighting program—pays about 1,220 people in 88 communities a small salary to conduct wildfire education, outreach, and fuel reduction in their local areas. As it has with its wildland firefighting recruitment and training programs, WoF is now looking to export this Firewise model to other nations.

“There is so much interest in community-based fire management—it’s the way the world is going,” Charlton said. “There are no fire brigades where we work. If you don’t fight it yourself, it’s not going to work.”

NFPA has worked with WoF on the Firewise program since its inception in 2006, and signed a formal memorandum of understanding with WoF’s parent organization in 2013. As WoF expands its global reach, Charlton would like to see WoF’s partnership with NFPA include collaboration on training programs, code development, outreach and education, and more.

Charlton, who is from South Africa and has been with WoF since the program’s inception, spoke with NFPA Journal about fire in her country, how Firewise works there, and the future she sees for combating wildfire around the world.

Working on Fire and Firewise both began because wildfire had become a significant problem. What are the main causes of fire in South Africa?

Much like the rest of the world, people cause 95 percent of wildfires in South Africa—but the causes might be a bit different than in the U.S. In Africa, there is no life without fire. Many of our people live in very remote areas in fire-prone landscapes. They live very close to the earth—they use fire for agriculture to burn off old growth and encourage the growth of new grass for their stock. They use fire to keep warm, which can be dangerous, because in much of the country fire season is the winter. There is no electricity in many places, so people use fire for cooking almost exclusively. There is also no refuse collection—every household has what is called an ash pit, and the coals from the previous night’s fire go in the ash pit and rubbish gets put on top. If those refuse fires are left smoldering and the wind comes up …

How was NFPA’s Firewise program incorporated into your efforts?

I came to NFPA’s Backyards & Beyond Conference in Denver in 2006 after doing some research about the Firewise program. I wanted to build a relationship. At that stage, we had just started Working on Fire, and part of our charge from the government was to implement a national fire awareness and education campaign, because there really wasn’t much out there. It fell to me to have a look and see what the best models might be.

Given our demographics—a lot of really poor rural areas, as well as some seriously big metropolitan areas where there is a very large wildland/urban interface—it was a big challenge. It was a matter of trying to find the right model. Firewise is sufficiently flexible to address both rural poor situations, where there are no resources, and affluent urban situations, and it has worked. It works for any situation—the principles are good.

Hiring community members to do this work is a novel concept in the U.S. How did that aspect of the program evolve?

We initially rolled it out pretty much as you have it in the U.S., as a voluntary model, but we found that it was quite difficult to sustain. Even though there were advantages to the communities that engaged with it voluntarily, in the very poor rural areas where resources are scarce—and I don’t mean firefighting resources, I’m talking about putting food on the table—it is extremely difficult. Unless there is some significant substantive improvement in somebody’s life or livelihood, it is difficult to keep them engaged. That’s why we asked, in the same way Working on Fire is running job creation and training programs, if we could somehow tap into that and incentivize people to stay engaged and do that work for the benefit of the community. So we employ a few people in each community who do work that benefits the whole community. It works. It has been very successful.

You have 88 Firewise Communities and employ more than 1,200 in South Africa. How does the program grow?

There are a variety of ways we go about it. Sometimes people come to us after having heard about Firewise and want to try it. Generally people come because fire has hurt them in some way, so there is an emotional hook for them. In other cases, we go out and introduce our program to communities that we can see from the statistics have a really high fire danger. Often we overlay two sets of statistics, the poverty index and the fire risk, and we target those hot spots. In that way we get two birds with one stone. Then we approach the community, put together a training session, and go out into the community to introduce the Firewise principles.

What kind of work is done in a typical rural community?

They work 10 months out of the year and split their year into two parts: a pre-fire season where they do door-to-door education of the Firewise message, school awareness activities, and preparation of fire breaks; and a part of the year they work on fuel reduction. They cut trees down with hand tools. Nine times out of 10, all of that fuel is taken away and used as firewood by the community. They work on river-run areas to stop flooding, and implement what we call a community fire management plan, which they develop.

Working on Fire’s global firefighting and fire management program is separate from the Firewise effort. How would you describe the program today?

Working on Fire is a private international program that practices what we call integrated fire management, which covers everything from awareness education and prevention to early detection, coordination of resources during suppression, and then rehabilitation at the end. It is a full-value chain and every single part of it is important. We do work for governments and for clients around the world. We have a range of clients; sometimes multiple clients come together to do a bigger project working on a landscape level.

Our employees are recruited, and they are trained. It is very much the same as the hotshot crew model in the U.S., but not quite as seasonal. We retain teams throughout the year to do work. We may top up and bring on new people as it comes closer to fire season, but there is a core of dedicated people who are there year-round.

The Working on Fire program has a presence in seven countries, and your firefighters deploy to fires all over the world. Is this mobile, global wildfire approach the wave of the future?

We have to recognize that times are changing. International cooperation is critical going forward. No one country will be able to deal with the potential for wildland fire that they have. Look at what’s happened this past fire season. We sent hotshot crews to Alberta and British Columbia to mop up after large wildfires there, and we weren’t the only people there. The U.S. sent people, the Australians were there, Mexico was there, and there were probably others as well. These are some of the worst fires in living memory and you need to have people come in from across the world to deal with them.

What are the challenges you face fighting fires internationally?

Before you put someone on a fire line, you have to make sure they are going to be safe, so training and qualifications standards are critical. We use NFPA’s wildland firefighting codes, but because we are being asked to work in different countries, we need to be able to modify those provisions as needed to meet local or regional conditions. In terms of training and qualifications, when we go to Canada, for example, we have to make sure that our qualifications align with the Canadian qualifications before our people can go and work, and it is the same when we deploy to Indonesia. This is an ongoing thing now, so we hope to work with NFPA to standardize global wildland firefighting standards. I think that would be an exciting development, but that would be looking at a crystal ball.

Where are some other areas where you envision WoF and NFPA collaborating?

As we start exporting our programs to other countries, they are saying, “We know NFPA, and we want to align with that.” In South America, NFPA is perceived as a credible authority. We are there doing wildland training—how do we bring the two organizations closer together? It works in both directions. It will also help NFPA expand its reach and market.

Where are you now in spreading the Firewise model globally?

The program of integrated fire management is what we have been developing in various parts of the world, and we are busy bringing the Firewise element into that. Inevitably you first need to look at the main causes of fires and address the immediate suppression needs, and that is exactly what we have done. Now we need to look at fuel reduction, detecting fires earlier, and prevention. Community-based prevention is part of that, and that is where we are now, starting to integrate Firewise into the Working on Fire global model. There are lots of examples of where fuel reduction could have made a big difference in avoiding a catastrophe. If we aren’t doing something about the large amount of fuel out there, it is going to come back and bite us.

JESSE ROMAN is the staff writer of NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Kishugu