On the morning of 25 May this year, a grassfire call out rang through Windhoek’s fire brigade headquarters. That call was quickly followed by a backup grassfire call to Brakwater, north of Windhoek. Expecting a run of the mill veld fire, the first responders were instead greeted by an Armageddon-like inferno.
Seven fire engines and an ambulance were dispatched, as nine tanks with a capacity of 40 000 litres filled with diesel and jet fuel went up in flames on the train tracks. Namibians took to social media with videos and pictures of the unusual cloud of smoke that could be seen from as far as Kleine Kuppe in the south of the city.
At the fire scene, seven young female firefighters who were part of the team battling the blaze got their first taste of a giant fire that could have spilled onto nearby business premises and residential property and become a major catastrophe.
The fire crews chose a defensive approach to stretch their limited resources and responders made sure that the surrounding dry grass did not start any secondary fires and surrounding properties were protected.
For five hours, the crews battled and contained the fire. No life was lost on the day. “As I was approaching that fire, I was like… I can’t do it. It is very big. This is something I have never seen before,” said Selma Kwedhi about the thoughts running through her mind, as they approached the scene.
Kwedhi, a 27-year-old paramedic and firefighter, who studied through the City of Windhoek, has been an intern for the last three years.
Filled with feelings of panic, fear, anxiety and doubt, Kwedhi said a little prayer and forged on. Looking back to the day, she is grateful for the achievement and believes it was a great opportunity. Growing up in an informal settlement in the capital, shack fires were frequent and witnessing a man burn, Kwedhi back then believed had she been a firefighter, she would have been able to save him. “So, because of my childhood experience, I studied this knowing I would one day bring a lot of change,” she said.
Kwedhi was one of 39 firefighters who were recently awarded certificates of appreciation by the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development for successfully fighting the fire from the TransNamib fuel tanks that derailed and exploded upon impact on the northern outskirts of Windhoek.
At the forefront of that fight were seven female firefighters, all interns and none of whom have ever experienced the magnitude of the blaze they experienced that day, but each with the passion for helping and saving people.
With five years as a firefighter under her belt, 27-year-old Ulli Nuule acknowledges the panic her co-workers spoke of, adding that even those with experience go through it.
“But you know that you will never go into a fire alone. There is always someone to back you up,” Nuule, who hails from Tsumeb, said with a glint of pride in her eyes.
Shaideen Cloete (21), who was on ambulance duty on the day, says in firefighting, there is not enough training that fully prepares you because every day is a different scenario.
As she was running out to yet another ambulance call out, Cloete shouted, “it is a learning curve for everyone, even the permanent members.”
Women are generally underestimated in the industry, as it is a male dominated area. But this hasn’t stopped 24-year-old Silvia Hamakali from achieving her dream of being a firefighter, showing she is strong and capable.
Grateful for their positive work environment and the support they receive, the young women all agree that when they are in uniform, they are just firefighters and are treated as such.
The City of Windhoek emergency department has not recruited permanent staff for the past five years.
Deputy chief of emergency management, Kupaha Uazukuani confirms this, attributing it to the shortage of funds at the municipality.
With over 20 years in the force, Uazukuani who led his team on 25 May, praised his members for their bravery, saying most if not all have never fought a disaster of that magnitude.
“It is commendable that they achieved that. The members did well,” said Uazukuani.