I recently read a suggestion that everyone’s daily plan leave 2 hours for unexpected activity. In South Africa, all your expectations of what a day would bring were blown away on such a regular basis that your daily plan was just a sketch of activity which would on most days if you were lucky involve actually accomplishing one of the activities that you planned to do. Your farm is your office, your life – and just a place for people to turn up to just in case you were in. And on many days just as you were heading out to go to an activity, you’d find that someone had pushed 30 head of cattle onto the farm among your new tiny orange trees and life would be put on hold as children were shoved out the car door to chase them back off onto the road.
However, fire was somehow ever present. South Africa has in many areas a dry and wet season. In between the seasons, you had to burn fire breaks. This is a legal requirement with days marked as green, yellow and red depending on the fire risk. Now, our farm was surrounded by monster plantations of Eucalyptus or Saligna forests owned by either Sappi or Mondi. As they were the big guys, they were both referred to in the same breath like ‘Sappi-and-Mondi’. So, if our small farm had a little fire that went into their huge plantations, the results were too frightening to imagine. The cost of a small fire fighting plane per hour was overwhelming. So once a year, there was the fire break burning exercise in which you handed people who were on $2/day wages a can of flammable material and sent them off with a pack of matches to ‘pull the fire’. Yup. I can see the flames flicker in your eyes as you imagine what happens next.
The general idea was that you start a fire high on a hillside and pull it down by pulling the long grasses down into the lower grasses and so on down around the hill. And I’m sure that this idea had been explained to the staff numerous times. On this one day, the farm manager, Brian, had enlisted his trustworthy folks to start the fire on one hill and then headed off on some errand in the attempt to actually accomplish his one task a day. The workers settled down to a bit of a snooze at the bottom of a hill. On his way back, they could hear his truck or ‘bakkie’ coming up the road and, in a panic, lit the fire – at the bottom of the hill.
You can imaging Brian’s surprise at being met by a wall of fire headed up the hill eating the dry grass at an alarming rate, the flames licking higher and higher headed for one of the mature orange orchards. On one hand his instinct was to kill the workers and I’m sure that he had the Zulu vocabulary to make them understand this in no uncertain terms – on the other hand he needed as many people as possible at the top of the hill to dig a quick fire break. He loaded them in to the back of the pick up driving over the deep ruts and potholes as quickly as possible and arrived in time to save the orchard, the farm – and our fire insurance policy. Later on at least one of these three lost their jobs. Although in proud South African tradition, I think that peace was made and they all came back in the end. I know because I paid for the funeral of one of their sons, fulfilling the traditional role of the big boss or ‘Nkosan’
The next year’s fire season, we were more prepared – and there was more to do. In addition to the usual fire breaks, the goal was to burn off the huge steep hill full of bushes and grasses curved around the back of the main farm compound: 2 houses, swimming pool with sheds and an office. In preparation, the tractors had full water tanks attached and were positioned in strategic spots on the farm. I stood at the back door of our house and looked right as Brian pulled the fire around the base of the hill so that it burned most from the far right and then lowest closest to our house. It was terrifying to watch – the hill crackling and popping in the heat driving up the steep hill towards the small break at the top where it should stop.
And Brian kept pulling it around – above the lemon orchard to the side of our house and then down the hill towards the bottom road. As he pulled the fire down, the fire went up into the valley between the farm compound and the sawmill to the other side of the valley. In between is a steep area with small dams and, as it is too steep to cultivate, it is left to native plants which give different wild flowers every month. Only now it was dry tinder to the fire and the only thing to stop it at the top was a small break burned at the top and a dirt road. As is usual, whatever plans I had that day had now changed. I turned from the raging fire behind the house to the children, aged 8, 6 and 4, in the kitchen and said “You’re making dinner” and walked out to help.
The tanker at the bottom of the lemon orchard was already dry, so I sent the tractor off to the river to reload with water and watched the fire licking the grass edge of the orchard. It didn’t make much progress, so I walked down along the road to the bottom road and along to the lowest point of the uncultivated valley where some eucalyptus trees grew on either side of the road. Around 8pm in the dark, Colin, Brian and I ended the evening there watching some logs burn themselves out before we returned home to the proudly served meal of cold hot dogs. That year the fire was controlled and the staff kept their jobs because we kept our heads.