Working on Fire - Simonstown fires December 2023

By Pete van der Spek


Two of the WOF choppers filling up in the sea

the fire along Glencairn Expressway on Friday midday

Those magnificent men in their Huey helicopters were called upon late December to fight a huge fire on the Cape peninsula around Simonstown. They made the difference between entire devastation and an area which was contained and with no loss of life or dwellings.

WOF chopper filling up between the rocks in the sea

Returning from a drop to fill up

Even though Cape Town and the winelands had really good rainfall in 2023, the fynbos gets dry very quickly which can lead to fires spreading very quickly when started - either by vagrants cooking their meals or arson. The latter is despicable and one hopes that the culprits are caught.

Three WOF choppers at the Simonstown Sports Field parking area

Early on Tuesday 19 December, a small fire was started just above Castle Rock which is near Millars Point between Cape Point and Simonstown. It was reported by a resident of Castle Rock at around 7am. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing at about 25-30 kph and quickly swept the fire up the mountain. It took fire tenders about 30 minutes to respond by which time, the fire had taken hold in a big way. Air support was immediately called in and the Newlands Working on Fire helicopters arrived to fight the fire. With only sea water available, they were soon dipping their Bambi buckets into the sea and dumping the water on the fire. What followed, was 4 days of firefighting by both ground crews and air crews. A vast area was burnt but many more acreage was saved. On Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, the fire swept over the hill and burnt down towards Simonstown itself.

The fire above our estate at 21:45 on Thursday night

WOF Bambi filled up and heading for the drop

The ground firefighting teams worked all night to prevent the fire from reaching any houses and come dawn, the air wing was back in force dumping water on the fire. These guys need a medal - they work under tough conditions and one pilot described the flying as "a take-off and landing every few minutes and flying close to mountain side and the ground". It is very dangerous flying indeed and yet these guys put their lives at risk to help save lives and structures and the countryside.

Short strop means almost landing in the water

Two WOF Huey's dropping water on the mountainside

I was able to watch and take photos of them in action over the four days and was blown away by their skill. The wind over those four days was very strong. How they manage to do the job is amazing.

Spreading the water nicely

Bombs away

Some amazing targeting

They used the Naval sports field in Simonstown as the refuelling base and at one point, there was three Huey's on the landing area plus one more fighting the fires. The crew are forced to land every few hours for a break and of course to refuel and a crew change came up very quickly, the guys flying so many hours they were forced to stand down.

Dodging the rocks to collect water

The fire burnt across to Scarborough and the WOF Huey's and Legends Aviation choppers were involved in bringing the fires under control - of course along with many ground units. The SAAF supplied one Oryx to help the cause.

Nice drop

Millars Point Angling clubhouse backdrop

On Thursday 21 December, some idiot started a fire above our complex in Noordhoek/Glencairn and it burnt overnight, coming very close to an estate above where we stay which caused a few hours of anguish. Luckily the fire turned and went back over the hill and burnt till late afternoon on Friday. The photos of the flames were from that fire. The Simonstown fire and the Glencairn fire were NOT connected. Clearly arson was involved.

Very large flames jump into the air along Glencairn Expressway

The WOF spotter plane

One thing that struck me was the short strop on the WOF Huey's was better for accuracy and quicker turn around time. Admittedly they "only" carry 1000 litres but the quick turnaround time made up for the smaller load. And of course, the accuracy was of utmost importance. With ground crews fighting the fire at the head of the fire, it would not be good if a ton of water was dropped on them.

Nice shot of the WOF chopper showing the downdraft

Of course, the most important person in this whole operation is the man with an iron clad bladder - the fire spotter - who flies around for hours in his fixed wing aircraft above the fire directing the drops. The WOF pilot is a hero as well - not just for his spotting but also his tenacity and long hours flown.

Hats off to the men in their machines - we certainly saw the benefit of having them around over that scary week in December.

Mpumalanga Working on Fire Air Show 2016

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