Of course, the drought and the windstorms were very largely to blame for the excessive destruction, but if the Forestry Department had functioned as it did when I worked there, I am sure the fires could have been contained before they did so much damage. In those days, there were towers in strategic positions which were manned day and night and fires could be quickly spotted. Then there were many more permanently-employed forestry workers. Most of these were trained in fire-fighting, so there was a large pool of fire-fighters to be called on when needed. Now most of the plantations are privately owned and the owners find it more cost-effective to out-source labour and employ temporary workers, and this has increased the risk of destructive fires.
I remember Willem, the forestry worker who had been seconded to the lSaasveld laboratory when I was in charge of it. He was such nice happy soul and such a good reliable guy. He was known for being the first to volunteer when there was a call for help in putting out a fire. "Always the first to jump on the lorry," the foreman told me. I thought of him when I read of the 67 year-old fire-fighter who died of burns and smoke inhalation. That old man must have been somebody like Willem. I wrote this for him.
“You again!” they said.
“Always the first to jump on the lorry.”
“Why don’t you give it a break? they said
“Why don’t you leave it to the younger guys?”
“Stay home this time,” they said.
“Don’t you remember the heat and the dirt?
Ash, soot and sweat on your hands and your face
the smell of charred hair and blistering skin,
and the small, burnt animals on the forest floor.
It’s a nasty job,” they said
“Don’t you remember how a blaze from the ground
can flicker up tree-trunks and fly to the sky?
Don’t you remember how sparks shower down,
and how smoke sears your eyes and grabs at your breath.
“Aren’t you afraid?” they said
“But they need me there,” he said