The devastating fire that swept the left flank of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain in April 2021 was particularly daunting.
‘The smoke was so thick,’ said 26-year-old firefighter Tarren January, recalling how the initially small fire on Devil’s Peak soon spread through the University of Cape Town and nearby suburbs.
‘As we hiked up to the fire line, there was so much smoke. The wind was terrible, so terrible that at one point we had to back down.’
A change in wind direction had pushed the flames as high as multi-story apartments, enveloping Cape Town in a thick grey-brown blanket of smoke.
‘We did manage to push through,’ explained the firefighter. ‘But it was very difficult to breathe, and the wind was constantly forcing us back and forth.’
January is a member of the Juliet Crew, South Africa’s first and all-female wildland firefighting unit.
Since its inception in 2019, the team, comprised of mostly young women from working class backgrounds, has helped fight some of the country’s worst-ever wildfires, saving countless lives and millions of dollars’ worth of property in the process.
Zimasa Khana fought the flames alongside January on that terrifying blaze in April.
‘Fighting fires is all about teamwork,’ said the 31-year-old, who lives in the shadow of Devil’s Peak in Cape Town’s sprawling Khayelitsha township.
‘You are never one person and always part of a team. That means you can’t do things alone and always have to ensure you have a back-up – and provide back-up for others.’
Being part of a close-knit team helped Khana through her first callout, which involved a raging wildfire near Cape Town’s upmarket beach suburb Camps Bay in December 2020.
‘It was incredibly scary. That fire was something else, but in the end, it was a good day as I was with people who had my back. The work became easier after that.’
Like Khana, January can remember her first fire like it was yesterday. ‘It was the one in Noordhoek, near Cape Town, in January 2020. It was a very scary one, with very high flames. Initially, I told myself I couldn’t do this job, and I even cried,’ she said with a laugh.
‘I have since learned that when you are part of a strong team, nothing can go wrong. My leader wouldn’t have let us go into something super dangerous in the first place. Fighting fires has become a lot easier since.’
Buhle Tebekwana has been part of the team since it was established in 2019 under the All-Women Wildland Firefighting project in partnership with the NCC Environmental Services.
Her first experience of a battling wildfires was in January 2019, when a blaze took hold just below the cable car station at the bottom of Table Mountain. Fanned by strong winds and dry brush and vegetation, it spread and jumped the road.
‘It was very hectic, as homes and cars were burnt that day,’ said Tebekwana.
‘I was very scared and emotional and found myself crying. But we managed to fight the fire.’
Dean Ferreira, the managing director of NCC Environmental services and founder of the Juliet Crew, is incredibly proud of what his 12-strong team of local women has achieved over the two and a half years: ‘They have done some incredible work, and as a result, they are being called out more and more.’
While the women currently work together in one unit, his aim has always been to train the Juliet Crew and scatter them among other units, which tend to be male-dominated.
Smashing such traditional gender roles is 31-year-old Khana’s main driver for becoming even better at her job. ‘I want to prove people wrong about what they think women can and can’t do. It hasn’t been easy dealing with community responses. Some people expect that women won’t be able to do this type of job,’ she said calmly.
‘However, I have found that changing people’s mindsets depends on how you respond to them. I usually explain to people step by step what we do, how we do it and why, making clear that both women and men have the necessary capabilities to be firefighters.’
January explained how people often ask her why she chose her job, assuming that firefighting is only for men.
‘My family, too, was surprised when they heard I wanted to do this, but they have been very proud of what I have achieved,’ she added.
‘I believe that if you put your mind to it, anyone can do anything. On the other side, if you tell yourself that you can’t, then you won’t.’
Tebekwana’s story is similar. Like her colleagues, she is determined not to let any naysayers sway her. Instead, she wants to channel that scepticism to become better and better.
‘People tell me many things, but I don’t listen. Being a firefighter is not easy, but I love it.’
Such passion is one of the prerequisites for anyone who wants to join the ‘top-class’ unit, explained Ferreira.
‘If you’re simply looking for a job, this is not the field for you as being a firefighter is not just a job.’
Being physically and mentally fit is another non-negotiable, said the fireman of 35 years.
‘One of our first fitness tests involves completing 5km under 45 minutes with a 20kg bag on your back. If you can’t do that, you can’t do this work.’
Firefighting in the tinder-dry mountains around Cape Town is notoriously taxing.
Fire crews often have to hike up a mountain for six miles (10km) or more, with all their equipment on their backs just to reach the wildfires, said Ferreira, who describes how the Juliet Crew go through military-style training to build up their fitness.
‘If you can’t do that because your fitness is lacking, then you are of no value to your colleagues. Being fit is critical.’
While the women have only known each other for a few years, January, Khana and Tebekwana consider each other sisters rather than colleagues.
‘We live together from Monday to Friday and go home on Saturday to Sunday. We have become very close,’ said January.
During the week, the crew lives together at their temporary station on the upmarket Vergelegen Wine Estate, an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
Having a permanent base would make a massive difference to the Juliets, allowing them to be on standby on a rotational basis and be deployed from there.
‘When the fire on Devil’s Peak broke out, we were all at home as the call came through on Sunday,’ January said.
‘It was quite challenging to get started because most of us rely on public transport to get to our central point. And you know how our public transport works.’
Since the fire on Devil’s Peak, the Juliet Crew has featured prominently in South African media, and there is even a documentary being made about the women.
‘Having all these cameras and the media wanting to know this and that has been quite exhausting,’ said January, smiling.
‘Everyone wants a piece of us, and we have to give it to them because we want to tell our story and inspire others.'
‘There are many young women and girls who look up to us, as we are trailblazers, and want to be just like us. What I can say to them is that they should not let their dream of becoming a firefighter go to waste. Go for it, and aim higher. Don’t let people tell you otherwise.’