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Water-bombs for shack fires?

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05 Jan 2011

Fires frequently sweep through informal settlements, destroying shacks, injuring or killing people and depriving residents of their few meagre possessions. However, the City of Cape Town is working on plans to water-bomb shack fires in an attempt to rapidly extinguish them.

The Western Cape provincial government is revising its fire-fighting plans and the use of fixed-wing plans to dump a 2,5-ton load of water directly onto a shack fire is one of the options being considered.

However, fire chiefs in the province have serious reservations about dumping a large load of water onto shacks that may still be occupied, fearing that the deluge could cause additional injuries to residents who are trying to flee the fires.

The other concern is that there is a lengthy turn-around time for the planes, which must first refill their bowsers with water before flying back to the site of the fire and dumping the next load.

In December last year there were 137 shack fires in Cape Town, another 134 fires in suburban areas around the city and 1 275 veld and grass fires. According to fire services spokesman Theo Layne, fires in informal settlements destroyed between 10 and 50 homes.

The most devastating fire occurred in Masiphumelele near Kommetjie last week where 168 homes were burnt down leaving more than 600 people homeless.

Water-bombing of homes and shacks is not common although the system has been used in previous shack fires and local government MEC, Anton Bredell says he is very keen to use planes for this purpose.

Layne says the council will probably not use fixed-wing aircraft but has chartered a water-bombing helicopter that could be used with caution to fight fires. These helicopters carry buckets that hold about 3 500 litres of water.

However, Layne points out that this amount of water weighs about 3,5-tons and can cause serious damage to people on the ground when dropped from a relatively low height. 

Readers' Comments Have a comment about this article? Email us now

Water bombing is extensively used in Forestry Fires in KZN and Mpumalanga, and is very effective as you are putting down a lot of water very quickly. Using the right chemical additives it is very effective is stopping the fire spreading further even if it does not kill the fire in the shack that is burning I am sure it will be effective in slowing the spread to surrounding Shacks. The Experienced pilots that fly the Bombers  can drop their loads at various levels and Speeds thus spreading the water over a bigger area ,and also minimizing any injury to people on the ground. The Big Helicopters tend to have a Fanning effect on the fires as they hover over it. As far as in aware Working on fire have used this water bombing very effectively on Shack fires in the Cape in the past years Maybe the MEC should speak to the relevant people. A huge problem with the expanses of Shacks is that the Fire Department cannot get in because there are no Roads or Water points. - Terry

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