Westridge-raised woman leads response to Table Mountain fire

Arlene Wehr, right, head of operations for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services for District West was incident commander for the recent Table Mountain wild fire. She is pictured with acting chief fire officer Clinton Manuel.

A Westridge raised woman was at the helm the Fire and Rescue Services’ response to the Table Mountain fire, which raged for four days, destroying historic landmarks, homes and UCT’s Jagger Library.

Arlene Wehr, head of operations for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services for District West and incident commander for the blaze which started at the Rhode Memorial restaurant on Sunday April 18 and ended on the slopes of Deer Park, said it took dedication and commitment to get the job done.

By Wednesday April 21 the fire was damped down.

“It took long hours on the mountains and we had to keep firefighters nourished, hydrated and ensure they have enough rest to turn over shifts,” she said.

Ms Wehr was one of four incident responders, serving on one of the most difficult days of the fire – Day 2, Monday April 19.

Every fire is different, said Ms Wehr, and this time they faced challenges of high wind speeds, not enough ground support, no aerial views of where the fire was running, and containment.

She said they used a privately-owned glider plane, which could fly higher than the helicopter, to collect infrared pictures which showed them the location of the fire, where it was running and its extent. This helped to ensure a quick response and avert damage to life and property.

“I am quite tech savvy and I don’t work alone. I’ve got a team that manages operations and does planning, and we have to combine all of the information to manage the situation,” she said.

Ms Wehr said high winds fanned the fire and without aerial support some areas were inaccessible.

“It spread rapidly with very windy conditions. Our guys had to avert the danger and move in areas where the fire jumped,” she said.

She, who is responsible for eight stations including Cape Town (Roeland Street), Sea Point, Salt River, Epping, Brooklyn, Hout Bay, Constantia and Wynberg, encourged girls to pursue careers as firefighters.

Ms Wehr was an accountant before she had a change of heart and became a firefighter in 1992.

“I hope that this is an inspiration for some of our females to join this job.

“It is very difficult but you can make a career out of it – if you are dedicated and committed,” she said.

Ms Wehr encourages residents to be safe around fires and to manage them.

“Try not to make unnecessary fires. Educate our kids to protect themselves in a fire situation,” she said.

Five firefighters were injured in the line of duty and nine civilians were taken to hospital due to smoke inhalation. One firefighter is still in hospital.

The latest damage reports show that a total of eleven structures were damaged or destroyed between Sunday and Tuesday.

These include residential houses, six University of Cape Town (UCT) campus buildings, two heritage buildings, including the Mostert’s Mill and UCT Jagger library and the restaurant at Rhodes Memorial.

Early on Tuesday April 20 residents who were evacuated from Deer Park and the Disa Park towers, in Vredehoek, were allowed to return hours later.

Premier Alan Winde and mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith visited the central fire station on Roeland Street to meet Ms Wehr on Tuesday April 20.

The premier thanked those who served on the frontline and ensured an update was given on the containment of the fires.

He acknowledged Ms Wehr, in particular, for her sterling service.

She is the first woman to be appointed in this operational role since 1845, Plainsman, July 10, 2019).

Ms Wehr thanked Capetonians for their generosity, when called upon for donations of water and meals. She said all was not lost because all excess was shared with shelters and to assist the UCT student residents.

“We highly appreciate all of the assistance, support and donations, especially the relief crews, who managed to keep the blaze from spreading,” said Ms Wehr.

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