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Fighting an underground fire

Overstrand Municipality handed underground firefighting efforts at the Onrus River Peat Wetland area over to Working on Fire on 1 May.

The fire has been burning in this area since 25 December. On 30 January the Overstrand Fire Services realised that this is not a normal fire and a specialised team had to be called in.

This fire started after a blaze swept through Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and left the vegetation in the riverbed smouldering.

Angelo Aplon from Overstrand Fire Services mentions that every second week a drone flies over the area that is burning and takes infrared aerial photos.

Overstrand Municipality’s environmental officer, Tarron Dry, says the fire is a dangerous one because it is not around you but underneath you. He explained: “The drone takes infrared photos that give only surface temperature and not underground temperature. A rehabilitation programme will take place in future after we are done fighting this fire.”

Shane Christian, Chief Fire Officer at Working on Fire, explains it will take them about two months to fight the 800 m².

“What makes this fire so complex,” he says, “is that you have to take a spike that we use to fight underground fires and make nine holes in one square metre, and then you fill it up with water until water starts popping out from the hole. It is extremely labour intensive as we have only eight to 10 hours per day to fight this fire.”

Working on Fire is a government-funded programme that uses 5 000 young people across 200 bases in South Africa to fight fires.

“This spike that we use is 1,5 m high, with 10 mm holes in it. When we connect this spike to a water hose it actually pulls itself down into the ground and penetrates deep into the ground,” adds Christian.

They also have to cut down trees that are in the way and these are trees that were damaged during previous fires.

“We will start on the outskirts and work our way in because the centre is always the most dangerous as that is where the highest concentration of gas is located. The ground is so soft during these fires that sometimes while you are just walking the ground simply gives way beneath your feet.”

“Bog fires are common abroad but not in South Africa,” Dry pointed out. “The plant materials that are going through a process of turning into coal (which can take thousands of years) are actually a source of fuel for the fire.

“The fire goes down to the roots of these plants, which are very wet, and it actually becomes hydrophobic. This means it pushes moisture out of the way, in this way helping the fire to spread.”

Working on Fire and the Overstrand Municipality urge the public not to go into the site where the firefighters are working as the area is extremely dangerous.

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