Thursday, June 15, 2017


While we had a storm here, a storm which was not nearly as bad as we had been led to expect, Knysna was burning. It is one of the worst tragedies I have ever known. Twenty years or so ago I used to know Knysna well. We would visit often. We had many friends there. We would take the train and spend an hour or so. there whenever we had visitors. We would go there for squash matches or meetings of one sort or another, or just for an outing. I did a lot of work in the surrounding forests when I was employed at Saasveld. Forestry Research station.  This was a beautiful little town. now it seems to have been quite destroyed. Hundreds of houses burnt, hectares of forest and plantation gone for ever.
 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

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