Despite your best efforts at diligently preparing your land for the dry winter and fire season, with cut, burnt or ploughed firebreaks, there is still a risk that you will suffer a veld fire on your plot: Even the best fire-prevention techniques are no match for a runaway fire on a windy winters day and even with firebreaks in place you need to ensure you have adequate and appropriate equipment to combat a blaze on your land.
There’s no doubt about it: If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to fight a fire, water is the best possible thing you can have with which to fight it. Trouble is, water is not readily portable; and when it is, it’s heavy.
So unless your fire danger is such, or your pocket is deep enough, that you opt for your own fire engine, or bakkie or trailer mounted firefighting sprayer; or unless the furthest corners of your plot are provided with pressurized water piping and taps, chances are your firefighting arsenal will include equipment other than water sprayers.
For, from a hastily hacked off wattle branch to a custom-designed four-wheel-drive fire engine, the range of equipment available for fighting grass fires is vast. And luckily there’s something suitable for every situation and budget.
A distinction should be made, however, between the type of equipment which is suitable for controlling a small, controlled fire, such as when one is burning firebreaks on a windless day in short, cut grass, and that which is necessary when one is faced with a runaway veld fire crossing one’s land. Obviously, therefore, the position and size of one’s plot or farm, the terrain and surrounding veld, will all have a bearing on the choice of firefighting gear in one’s arsenal.
Whatever your preference and budget, the National Veld & Forest Fires Act makes it compulsory that you, as a landowner, have in your possession sufficient equipment to fight any fire that may occur on, or cross, your land. The act is, however, not specific as to what constitutes sufficient firefighting apparatus.
It may not be practical on large plots but on many smaller smallholdings it may be possible to fight fires using hosepipes attached to the taps which form part of the plot’s irrigation system. How, after all, does one get water to the water troughs in one’s fields?
If you wish to use hoses to fight fires there are some cautions to observe.
Firstly, the hoses should be of sufficient length to reach all corners of the plot.
Secondly, they should be in good repair and available at all times and be fitted with suitable spray nozzles. You will be amazed at how much pressure is lost through a hole in the hose or a leaky coupling. And when you’re faced with an advancing wall of flame, even if it’s no higher than a braai fire, amazement at the lack of pressure in your hosepipe is the last thing you want.
Thirdly, the taps and hose couplings should all be compatible. This may also seem obvious but the realization that the tap in your field is not fitted with a Gardena-type
click-on fitting compatible with what’s on your hose should not be made while a wall of fire advances steadily across the paddock towards you.
And, fourthly, one should ensure that whatever system is used to pump the water in the network is sufficiently powerful to achieve a decent pressure at the end of the hose wherever one is attempting to fight the fire: Holding a hose that is dribbling water at a rate no faster than an old man with a prostate problem is hardly likely to make one an effective firefighter.
If hoses are impractical one must resort to transportable water. The cheapest source of transportable water comes in the form of a 16 litre hand-operated backpack sprayer. If you have these for spraying fruit trees they can form part of your winter firefighting arsenal if kept filled with water and readily available. Ensure before the season starts, however, that the spray nozzle fitted delivers a fairly concentrated jet of water rather than the delicate mist-like spray with which one would coat the leaves of a fruit tree or rose bush with insecticide.
Ensure, also, that the pump is working. A sprayer stored filled with water (or, worse, residual insecticide spray) can seize up and be useless in a crisis.
While the fruit tree-type sprayers make adequate fire fighters for cut grass in no-wind situations their relatively short spraying distances and low throughputs make them inadequate for serious firefighting.
For that, specialist backpack firefighting units are available, with two-handed spray lances that deliver water at a greater volume over a much larger distance.
Moving up to motorized sprayers, the smallest available is also the backpack type, the drawback being that it has a smaller water carrying capacity that a hand-pump type because of the weight and volume of the motor.
Also in the portable category is a two-man pump unit available from Turfmaster of Nigel. Comprising hoses, a pump and motor mounted on a metal stretcher-like frame it is easily carried and has an intake pipe which can be fed from a dam, reservoir, stream or drum of water.
Units are also available which can be mounted on the back of a quad-bike. These have the advantage of a small attached water tank.
Multifire & Power of Springs manufacture small water trolleys. These hand-pushed wheeled units are fitted with 110 to 200 litre tanks and small spray units and are commonly used as high-pressure washers, or gutter cleaners, etc. But, having their own built-in water supply tank they can very adequately be used as firefighters during the dry season.
Also popular, of course, are the single axle trailer-mounted firefighting units which have their own water tanks, or integral tank/pump/motor combinations that can be mounted on the back of a bakkie.
Typically, the trailer firefighters and bakkie-mounted units will have a PVC tank with a large filler hole, a pull-start engine and a high-pressure pump with one or two hoses on reels.
The advantage of the trailer units is that they can be filled and left in readiness throughout the fire season. They are, however, more expensive than the equivalent capacity bakkie-mounted set-up.
A motorized high-pressure pump trailer or trolley is not limited to fighting grass fires in winter, of course. It can be used throughout the year as a high-pressure washer for cleaning stables and work areas, washing vehicles and implements, cleaning gutters and even spraying in orchards.
The disadvantage to the bakkie-mounted type is that it effectively renders one’s bakkie a mini-tanker for the duration of winter unless one can lift it on and off quickly using a frame and a block and tackle.
When considering any kind of motorized firefighter an important point is to see how quickly the tank can be replenished, and how. Can the high-pressure output pump double up as a suction filler pump? How long, and of what diameter, is the filler hose (in other words, how far will it reach and long will it take to refill the tank?)
Concerns over water capacity can be partially overcome by making the water “wetter”.
This is achieved by adding urea and wetting agent to the water (or by adding a specially bought compound from a firefighting equipment dealer such as Multifire & Power.)
This must be added immediately before fighting the fire and cannot be stored in the unit as it will perish hoses and washers.
The problem of capacity can also be tackled by ensuring the water one sprays is not wasted, the most common mistake being to aim the jet of water at the flames rather than at the base of the fire. Why? Although the smoke, flames (and heat) are the scary part of a fire they are in fact the aftermath of the event of combustion taking place at their base. A little theory to explain: Combustion of, for example, grass (or leaves, or wood), takes place when it is heated to a sufficient temperature in the presence of certain flammable gases in the atmosphere (eg oxygen and hydrogen). Lowering the temperature of the combustible material by cooling it with water or a jet of air, (or starving it of flammable gases, for example blanketing it in an inert gas such as nitrogen or carbon dioxide) will prevent it from bursting into flames.
In practical terms in a veld fire this means wetting the combustible material as or before it gets hot enough to burst into flames. Hence the need to spray down at the base, rather than up into the dancing orange flames.
Did you notice the reference to a jet of air above? Seems impossible as a firefighter? Consider this: How do you extinguish a candle or cool a mug of soup? Pffffffft…
Motorised backpack blowers are available specifically for firefighting. These powerful units deliver a large volume of air at very high speed, sufficient to blow out even strong fires.
For example, Husqvarna’s 380BTS is a large commercial-grade blower that delivers 19,4m3 of air per minute at a nozzle speed of 320kph. This is the equivalent of a 200 mile-per-hour gale ~ quite enough to, simply, blow flames away.
Its 71,9cc engine is fitted with an industrial-grade two-stage air filter which enables prolonged working in dusty conditions.
Weighing only 13,2kg (less than a hand-operated backpack sprayer filled with water) the unit has the advantage of a limitless supply of air, whereas a backpack sprayer needs filling every few minutes.
The 380BTS blower has been extensively tested in forests in KwaZulu-Natal.
Be aware that a common garden leaf blower, even a large one, is not sufficiently powerful to fight grass fires.
If all of these options are too elaborate or expensive you can resort to the manual methods: firebeaters, wet sacks or wattle branches.
Firebeaters made from a sturdy pole attached to flat pieces or strips of rubber conveyor belt are more effective and easier to use than flapping at the fire with a Hessian sack (first find a supplier of Hessian sacks) dipped in the water trough and are indeed a great improvement on the rural improvisation of a branch hastily hacked off a wattle sapling. But in truth these manual devices are unsuitable for tackling fires that have run away, those in long grass, or those being driven by wind; their use being confined to controlling controllable burns in short grass such as when burning firebreaks.
Remember also that the fire itself will create its own wind: In effect it becomes self-fuelling, so even on a windless day one has the feeling that one is dealing with wind created by the fire itself.
So, with the equipment in place there are some tips to managing fires on one’s land.
Firstly, manpower: If one has the luxury of paid manpower the most important aspect is to ensure that it is trained in the deployment and use of the equipment.
And the training should include not only how-to stuff pertaining to the equipment, but an awareness of the importance of firefighting in the first place. This is important because many Gautengers are blissfully unaware of the danger of fire and are quite happy to let verges and fields burn away untended not realizing the danger to surrounding areas, equipment etc. Staff should therefore be taught to look out for the haze and smell of smoke and when seen, identify immediately from whence it comes. In certain critical cases a system of panic buttons and alarms might be a good idea to ensure the quickest possible response to the start of a blaze.
Communication with the men at the fire face is vital to ensure a concentrated attack on the blaze rather than a hit-and-miss every-man-for-himself approach.
Safety of the men is important and a trained firefighter will always keep one eye open for the man next to him, and on the overall progress of the blaze. Smoke inhalation is the biggest danger for fighters of a grass fire with dizziness and unconsciousness being the result and firefighters should always be aware of the possible need to pull their co-workers to safety should they be overcome by smoke.
Indeed, the efficiency and comfort of workers fighting a fire is greatly enhanced if their eyes are not stung by smoke or their breathing impaired and among the purchases one can make for one’s firefighting arsenal are gloves, goggles and respirators.
All firefighting equipment should be readily available at all times, and easily accessible. In our theft-ridden society it may be tempting to store everything under lock and key but this can result in disaster if the key is not readily to hand.
If possible, all water receptacles should be filled before the fire season, and kept filled at all times.
If one opts for the “wetter water” system the ingredients should be available alongside the water receptacle, ready for instant mixing before heading out to the blaze.
Hoses and connections should be regularly checked for leaks, while engines and pumps should be periodically started and tested. Spare fuel should be kept at the ready (but out of harm’s way) and motorized equipment should be serviced at the end of the fire season in exactly the same way that one services one’s lawnmowers at the end of summer, ie, fuel should be drained from the tanks and the cylinders and fuel tanks lightly coated with oil to prevent deterioration.
Any transport equipment brought into the area of the fire, for example bakkies or tractors, should preferably be left idling to enable a quick get-away should the situation become dangerous. Or, at minimum, such machines should be left unlocked with keys in the ignition.
It goes without saying that one’s first thought in any grass fire situation should be towards one’s animals, to ensure that they are removed from any possible harm. This is as true for horses, cattle and sheep as it is for one’s dogs and cats, who can become catatonically stupid when confronted by flames and who often put themselves in danger in the general commotion.
Finally, any equipment that is lost or broken during a fire should be replaced as soon as possible afterwards to ensure one is always ready for the next blaze ~ whether on one’s own land or one’s neighbour’s.
Articles published with permission from:
Pete Bower Prop: Bowford Publications (Pty) Ltd – gautengsmallholder.ning.com