How wine fuels all-female fire fighting crew
The Juliet Crew fire fighting unit comprises young adults from at-risk communities, and a portion of sales of Huis van Chevallerie Circa Pinotage Brut Rosé bubbly goes towards equipping them. Going against every natural human instinct, fire fighters are the ones who run towards a blaze instead of away from it. Among these is Juliet Crew, an all-female team which tackles blazes in the wildlands and mountains of the Western Cape. Leading them is superintendent Kylie Paul. Fire fighting is a male-dominated world and Paul is acutely aware of this, being told that Juliet’s members not only have to be the best women but the best crew on the fire line. “You can’t drop it. They’ll remember the fall, not the rise.”
Someone who understands this is winemaker Christa von La Chevallerie, who has been in another traditionally man’s industry, that of agriculture, for decades. And on farms, often remote, fire is always a threat, be it natural or human-made. These factors inspired her to become involved with Juliet Crew and a portion of proceeds from the sale of her Huis van Chevallerie Pinotage Brut Rosé goes to them.
“The whole thing resonated with me, when after 20 years of farming you realise you are in a position to give something back, be it time or money. It’s easy to give away money!” she chuckled.
“I’ve farmed in Paardeberg and when there’s a fire, farmers, it doesn’t matter what their differences are, you get together to deal with it. I’ve had it on my doorstep and lost 20 hectares of grazing for my cattle. That has financial implications because you have to buy feed. Galvanised wire fencing begins to deplete and rust, which incurs another financial burden.
“A friend from Working on Fire said, ‘it’s easy, you’re a woman, you’re working in agriculture, there’s a fire fighting team, all women. They need support’. I looked into it.
“Supporting women just because they’re women is easy but I know that plight. I’ve been in agriculture for 30 years and I thought back to the days when I was the only woman among eight female winemakers, the things we were confronted with in terms of attitudes and egos…you mustn’t fight but you definitely need to stand up for yourself earlier than you think you have to.
“I always kept my mouth shut but if that dirty joke makes you as a woman feel uncomfortable, you are allowed to say that. I’m not against men, I’ve got the best male mentors who taught me everything I know about wine making but they also taught me humanly, egotistically, everything else. If we say, no we don’t like it, can’t we just be respected for that? It’s not a challenge.”
Juliet Crew was established in 2019 by NCC Environmental Services, a consultancy providing specialist environmental, health, safety, risk, sustainability, training and quality management services and integrated conservation biodiversity management; along with Working On Fire, a government-funded, job-creation programme focusing on implementing integrated fire management in South Africa; and youth leadership development NPO Chrysalis Academy, from where the first members of the team were recruited.
Paul, a former teacher who also has an environmental management degree, works in the fire division at NCC; she moved to Cape Town from Pretoria to work with fynbos. “It’s such a mind blowing miracle and I wanted to be here to help protect it. I wanted to be on the frontline but never imagined it would be as a fire fighter,” she said. Paul was headhunted from Volunteer Wildfire Services by NCC MD Dean Ferreira, to establish the all-female crew in 2019.
The women couldn’t be integrated immediately because there were no facilities and no uniforms for them. While NCC pays their salaries, they remain entirely self-funded – equipment, tools, uniforms, vehicles – and rely on sponsorships and donations. The big goal is to get them their own base, a home. “We’re kind of squatting at Vergelegen in Somerset West at the moment,” said Paul.
The need for proper kit might seem relatively small in the greater scheme of things, but Paul has spent three years in the wrong size boots: sixes for three years, fives for one year and now she has fours. She takes a size three. Add to that about 20kg of equipment and tools and safety gear, hiking over rough terrain, and it’s no wonder Paul tore both Achilles tendons as a result.
“We’re about to be sponsored by a Spanish company that is tailoring uniforms for us, properly fitted, from measuring each member’s biceps and necks,” she said. “We are the first female crew to ever receive a kit specially designed for us in the world. It’s a universal issue. Western cape is actually doing better than most other countries.”
The region is also doing well in terms of numbers. The global average number of volunteer female fire fighters is three to five percent; here it’s 30 to 40 percent.
“We fight wildland fires; roads are where the structural city guys go and when the fire leaves the road it becomes our jurisdiction,” she explained. “Often there’s a road and a mountain so they feed us water and we work together. We mostly walk to the fire, after going as far as is safe for the vehicles and we carry everything.”
Their tools are rake hoes and beaters (also known as flappers) – a long broomstick with rubber fingers on the end, which they use hit the fire and then smother it. “When three overlap you can do a lot of damage to a fire,” said Paul.
A rake hoe is simply that: a rake on one side, hoe on the other. “We use it as a cutting tool to cut lines, cut roots, push things back into the fire, pull things out. We seldom have water.”
So, to put it simply, these people walk up to a fire and hit it with a big stick.
Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that. Proper training is critical, and from the moment their feet touch the ground, it kicks in and there’s no room for fear, said Paul because “it will distract you from your goal and the situation can change in a second”.
Afterwards there’s plenty of time to rethink things and Paul sees a counsellor for this. It’s not something that is done routinely for the crews but she encourages hers to do the same, and is hoping to make it more official.
“Males don’t talk about their feelings and it’s so important to decompress afterwards,” she said.
NCC Environmental Services contracts to SANParks (Southern Cluster), CapeNature, Cape Winelands and Overberg District Municipalities, Stellenbosch, and Overstrand Local Authorities and when needed, the City of Cape Town. It has around 35 private landowners including wine farms to whom wildfire agent services are provided and also specialises in environmental management, biodiversity and conservation and health and safety.
“Businesses like ours fund transformation out of our own pockets. Extraordinary transformation initiatives require extraordinary interventions,” said MD Ferreira. “All our other crews are contracted and therefore self-funded. But at this stage, Juliet Crew is not. Our drive is to make this sustainable, in that we need work for this crew 12 months of the year.”
Source: The Daily Maverick