Four senior New York Air National Guard firefighters spent April 29 to May 5 in Cape Town to learn from, and share their experiences with, firefighters in South Africa’s Western Cape Province.
The four members of the 106th Rescue Wing– Master Sgt. Brian Cavanagh, Master Sgt. Fredric Pravato, Staff Sgt. Robert Despres Jr., and Staff Sgt. Joshua Lebenns—are based at F.S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base at Westhampton Beach on Long Island.
The four have 90 years of firefighting experience among them. Three are currently civilian fire fighters while serving with the Air National Guard and Cavanaugh, a full-time Airman, is a retired member of the New York City Fire Department.
The Americans were there as part of the State Partnership Program relationship between the New York National Guard and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) organized by the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation.
The office is engaged in a wide range of partnerships across many areas. The visit was designed to allow an exchange of best practices between Americans and a number of South African entities involved in efforts to fight fires in the Western Cape.
The New York Airmen visited the Table Mountain National Park Fire Management Department, attended a fire symposium at Stellenbosch University, visited several Fire Outpost Stations, and got the chance to train with South African firefighters.
The visit was requested by wildland fire specialists in the Western Cape.
“The United States was pleased to have the 106th Rescue Wing team in Cape Town to share best practices and experience with the South African military and provincial firefighting units,” said Virginia Blaser, U.S Consul General in Cape Town.
“The fact that we have opposite fire seasons provides an ideal opportunity for our two countries to support each other during challenging wildfire conditions, as happened last year when a South African team in the U.S. for training provided support for the Rattlesnake Fire on Native American tribal land in the U.S. Northern Rockies region,” she said.
“This current exchange represents the beginning of what we hope to be ongoing cooperation with U.S. armed service firefighters and South African military, provincial or regional, and municipal firefighters,” Blaser added.
Blaser visited the Table Mountain Newlands Fire Base with the 106th Airmen, where they observed water bucket helo-drops in mountainous terrain as a capability demonstration.
The Stellenbosch University visit focused on the fire ecology of South Africa and responding to and controlling fires in the region. A plant called Fynbos thrives in the region and provides fuel for brush fires.
Fynbos is a critical factor in trying to control fires in Cape Town, which has a population of over four million and a vast coastline, Cape Town Fire Chief Ian Schnetler told the Americans.
Cape Town is the size of the country of Luxembourg and there is always a demand for more personnel and resources to fight fires, Schnetler said. There are currently 30 stations across the city responding to calls daily 360 days a year.
According to the Western Cape Office of Disaster Management, in 2015 wildfires in the region from February to April resulted in several deaths and injuries, the burning of 17, 000 acres and damage to 13 properties.
In February, a fire in the Somerset West suburb of Cape Town involved six fire engines, three water tenders, 50 firefighters and two helicopters.
“By observing recent damage areas and examining the 2015 fire, the firefighters can improve firefighting skills and expertise and further enhance the exposure they have gained from the U.S. incident command system,” explained Philip Prins, the Table Mountain Fire Manager.
Previously, the U.S Forestry Service hosted Prins and a group of his firefighters to observe the incident command system in Montana. They also wound up helping to fight a fire there in 2018.
They were the first Africans to fight fires in the U.S.
The New York Air Guardsmen were asked to help develop a training plan that the South Africans could use in teaching fire fighters how to “fast rope” from a hovering helicopter, and for the deployment of fire equipment, supplies, and safety mechanisms to put in place during a response.
“This is a job we can accomplish and succeed at very well,” Cavanaugh said.
“This is exactly why we are here, here to assist and bridge the gap of our rescue capabilities and experiences,” Despres said.
The 106th Rescue Wing deploys pararescue Airmen from HH-60 Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopters and fast-roping- a technique involving sliding down a rope from a hovering helicopter—is one of the ways they train to deploy.
New York Air Guard firefighters are due to return to South Africa in November of 2019. That’s summer in South Africa and the start of the firefighting season.
Meeting the New York Air Guardsmen was “inspiring and revitalizing as a fire manager,” said Riaan Fourie, Deputy Fire Manager, Table Mountain Newlands Fire Base.
“I know it will bring about the necessary training, knowledge and relationships we desperately need to advance wildfire management,” he said.
The Americans said they were happy to come back in the fall and get hands on with their South African counterpart.
“We eagerly look forward to being on the fire line with our brothers and sisters,” Pravato said.