CSIShort-term

Insurers team up to fight WCape fires with helicopters

Aerial fire fighting team keeps wildfires at bay

When it comes to wildfires, nothing beats the speed and efficiency of aerial resources.  An initial attack strategy is crucial as a wildfire can spread at a rate of up to 23 kph, consuming everything in its path.  

An initial attack strategy means suppressing a fire as quickly as possible, before it gets big. This is the safest and least expensive option.

Ricardo Coetzee, Head of Auto & General Insurance, says that this year there has been a national increase in fire related incidents.  The Cape Winelands area has been ravaged by dozens of fires and according to a UN report, wildfires are going to get more frequent and more intense, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.

Six insurance companies – Auto & General Insurance, Lombard, Old Mutual, Santam, Hollard and Bryte Insurance have partnered to sponsor two Bell Huey fire-fighting helicopters equipped with bambi buckets for firefighting, as well as two 4×4 fuel bowsers.

“The proof of concept is assisting with an immediate maximum attack strategy within a 50km radius of Stellenbosch Airfield and is activated and managed through the Winelands Fire Protection Association (WFPA). Since launching in December 2021, the initiative has proved highly successful.  We have successfully contained 15 fires and saved property to the value of approximately R50 million,” says Dale Nortje, WFPA manager.

Miles Japhet, Chairman of Lombard says: “The biggest advantage of this project is the limited chain of authorisation.  The quicker we can get the helicopters in the air to ‘fly the fire’, the better the chance of preventing the fire from spiralling out of control.”

Japhet continues: “Once a fire gets to a certain size, it becomes extremely difficult to contain and expensive for the province involved, as well as the insurance companies and landowners.  Our Quick Reaction Force (QRF) is fast, motivated.” 

Mark Molenaar, Regional Head of Hollard Insure in the Western Cape says that over the past four months, the QRF been instrumental in containing veld fires, that would have otherwise caused enormous damage and they will no doubt stop many more fires during the ongoing dry season in the Cape over the coming weeks.”

Edwyn O’Neill, Bryte CEO, commented: “We operate in a risk environment characterised by constant evolution. One that requires us to create robust risk management solutions, that are fit-for-purpose in terms of addressing the needs of our customers, partners, and community. Innovative and efficient solutions such as this initiative form part of our quest to play an active role in building a sustainable future for all. For South African businesses and various stakeholders, it’s all about approaching risk with purpose.”

It’s imperative for homeowners to know what to do if their house catches alight, whether they live in a fire-prone area or not.  

Aside from general fire safety that prevents a fire from starting in your home – including the inspection of wiring and appliances, safely working with gas and heaters, or simply responsible smoking practices – it’s important to take steps to prevent a fire from spreading by following these preventative tips:

  • Make sure that you use fire retardant materials or treatments on roofs, walls, wooden decks, etc. as far as possible.
  • Remove any flammable materials like dead branches, long grass, rubbish bins and boxes from around your house. Also remove flammable materials from the roof and gutters.
  • Cut away any trees or other plants that grow too close to your house, as these could be conduits for fire.  Be cautious about highly inflammable trees, like gum trees or palm trees. Both alien trees have led to many households being destroyed.
  • Plan your garden and paving in such a way that they provide both horizontal and vertical fire breaks.
  • Store flammable chemicals and fuels away from the house.
  • Spark proof your house and outbuildings by closing up any gaps between panels like soffit and fascia boards that sparks could be blown into.
  • Vents and windows are prime spots for sparks and embers to gather – close these if need be.
  • Ensure that you have a working fire extinguisher, from a reputable source, and that you know how to use it. 
  • Consider investing in fireproof blankets that can withstand high temperatures.
  • Familiarise everyone with the relevant emergency numbers.   

In the event that you are caught in a runaway fire:

  • Decide on a safe place to meet outside the house.
  • Evacuate immediately when prompted – never try collect belongings before evacuating.
  • Pre-pack a “go bag” with important documents like Passports, ID books etc.
  • Don’t re-enter the house once outside.
  • Don’t open doors of rooms you suspect are on fire or if the door’s handle is hot. Look for an alternative route instead.
  • Never enter rooms that are already on fire.
  • Crawl low to the ground when leaving a room filled with smoke to reduce smoke inhalation.
  • If you are trapped, close the door to the room and put a blanket or towel at the bottom of the door to keep out the smoke.
  • Wrap yourself in a blanket and call for help from the window if you cannot open a door for a way out.

Nortje notes that, “Possessions can be replaced but lives cannot – protect yourself and your family by planning an exit strategy and keeping fire extinguishers within reach of everyone in the home. This could mean the difference between life and death.”

John Melville, Chief Underwriting Officer at Santam concludes: “It is commendable that leading insurers have pulled together quickly to implement such an impactful initiative that saves lives and millions of rands in damage to property.  Hopefully we can further replicate this collaborative model of managing common risks across the country going forward.”







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