“I’M one of the boys. Everybody does their bit, and when you put on your protective equipment everybody looks the same.”
Kelly Vlieghe, 30, is the head of training at Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) in Cape Town. She is a key member of a team that boasts a female contingent of over 30% and works to combat wildfires in the Western Cape.
Women also make up more than half of the management team at VWS, which operates independently of government emergency services. Volunteers receive no pay for their work, which most of them do on top of 9-5 jobs, and the organisation relies entirely on donations.
Traditionally, emergency services have been a male-dominated industry but Vlieghe, who has a PhD in entomology and works full-time as a researcher, said everyone at VWS pulls their weight regardless of gender.
We run an arduous practical test, which is a 4.8km hike with a 20.5kg pack that must be completed within 45 minutes.
“In terms of qualifications, you’re not given any leeway because you’re a woman. This includes your fitness,” she said.
“We run an arduous practical test, which is a 4.8km hike with a 20.5kg pack that must be completed within 45 minutes. Even if you’re a petite girl, you still need to complete it like everyone else.”
Vlieghe runs a rigorous training programme which ensures the service is fully staffed and prepared for fire season. This has contributed to her having accumulated more than 1,000 hours of service at VWS.
“I want to pass the skills that I’ve learnt on to other people,” she said.
Gill Ritchie, 54, is a driver for the service and said the need to add value to the team outweighed any gender dynamic.
“I work in the construction industry, which is extremely male dominated. You have to hold your own and fight all the time. Here, everyone is the same and everyone does their bit. We’re a crew and there’s a modus operandi that you have to follow regardless of your gender. It’s fantastic.”
Debby Hall, 49, is an accountant in her third season at the service. She said the opportunity to learn skills that would otherwise be regarded as “guy things” was one of her primary motivations for volunteering.
“What I found so wonderful is that I could actually do something and help without being sidelined. I’ve learnt so many skills — from operating a pump to learning how to use the radio and GPS,” she said.
VWS works closely with Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services and numerous municipal fire brigades throughout the Western Cape. It has base stations in Newlands, Jonkershoek, the southern peninsula and Grabouw and more than 200 trained volunteers.
Peter Wynne, operations manager at Newlands, said the support they received from the Cape Town community during fire season was “greatly appreciated”, but donations were needed all year round.
We are committed to making the public aware of fire risks, explaining what defensible space is and how to protect properties on the border of the bush
“We receive massive donations when we are in the public eye, where members of the public provide water, eye drops and food for the firefighters,” he said.
VWS hosted a number of events and trail runs to raise awareness about fire safety and the organisation. “We are committed to making the public aware of fire risks, explaining what defensible space is and how to protect properties on the border of the bush,” said Wynne.
“Areas like Knysna were totally unprepared for what happened, so we want to impart as much of that information to the public as possible.”
For Vlieghe, community support is one of the factors that inspire her dedication to firefighting.
“There’s something about the contrast between the devastation and chaos of the fire and the way that communities come together to help,” she said.
“Seeing that people are capable of completely altruistic behaviour and helping each other when needed is a truly humbling thing.”