The KZNFPA emanated out of the Natal Midlands Fire Protection Association, which was formed in 1954 as there was a strong need amongst landowners to establish a co-ordinated forest fire fighting initiative in the Natal Midlands, inclusive of aviation support, as a result of the then ongoing effects from devastating wildfires in the Crammond plantations.
The aviation component of KZNFPA was initiated by the late John Hickson, an ex WW2 Air Force navigator who, while stationed in Port Elizabeth awaiting demobilization, assisted the local fire department in setting up a communications chain in order to contain uncontrolled fires which had been burning for days in the area. John, who was from Pietermaritzburg, was a director of an accounting company, Hickson & Co. He operated the Association with the assistance of volunteer members of the General Committee and from a room in his home in Tanner Road, Wembley until his passing in 1979.
John, being ex South African Air force, was much in favour of utilizing aircraft in forest fire fighting but monetary constraints dampened all efforts. He also introduced Fire Hazard forecasting, based on the measurement of moisture content of weighed, oven dried fuel samples – a system that was refined with fuel moisture meters being placed in strategic positions in plantations and read twice daily. These readings, together with other parameters were then applied to a nomograph and a fire hazard index derived.
In July 1979 Harry Warr took over the management of the Association. Offices were rented in Shepstone House, Longmarket Street and an office structure was established from scratch, a radio network installed and implemented to cover the area of operations and a roster system made up of management personnel from timber companies was established. Personnel were called in to operate the radio network, answer telephones and to plot the location of fires on wall maps.
Operations generally consisted of ongoing liaison between members needing assistance with wildfires and those members whom were able to assist. Member numbers were made up primarily from the major timber growers, which in turn provided the necessary funding of the Association. Annual subscriptions were also received from interested Farmers Associations and as well as donations from entities such as S.A. Wattle Growers Union, N.C.T and various insurance companies.
The KZN Midlands – The beginning of aviation support at forest fires.
During 1978, Sappi Forests in KwaZulu Natal took the initiative to start utilising fixed wing aircraft to “water bomb” forest fires. These aircraft were up and until 1980, based in Bethlehem and used only on an ad-hoc basis during periods or on days when there were dangerous fire weather conditions. In 1980 the Natal Midlands Fire Protection Association moved its offices and operations to Oribi airport in Pietermaritzburg.
The first contract was allocated in 1980 for one 500gal Turbo Thrush. The aircraft was based at the Sappi Shafton plantation, just outside Howick and was piloted by Brent Hansen. In 1981, aircraft number increased and three Bull Thrushes (piston engines) were placed on contract at Sappi Shafton. These aircraft were found to be unsuitable and were soon replaced by Turbo Thrushes. The first Spotter aircraft also joined the Turbo Thrush fleet in 1981 and was used as a “fire boss in the sky” to assist the water bombing operations.
It became very apparent to the timber companies that aircraft were effective in reducing the size of unwanted forest fires and in turn reduced the amount the timber loss incurred. As a result, other timber growers became involved and the Natal Midlands Fire Protection Association accepted the task of Co-ordinating all aircraft and producing a system of member levies to cover the cost of having the aircraft on standby.
In 1982 the aircraft moved from Sappi Shafton to Oribi Airport. The fleet of Bombers and Spotters steadily grew as the membership of the Association increased. In 1984 Sappi Forests in the then Eastern Transvaal also adopted aerial fire-fighting and related operating systems, and so that region, developed aviation support along the same lines as KwaZulu Natal. The timber growers in the Piet Retief and Usuthu Forest areas started using Bombers in 1986. These aircraft were contracted from Rautenbach Aerial and were based on plantation in Usuthu and at Piet Retief.
Zululand – aviation support soon followed the Midlands
The Zululand Timber growers formed the Kwambonambi Fire Protection Committee on the 17th February 1954. The founding Chairman was Mr. L.C.M Rattray and the vice Chairman was Mr. P.V. van Breda. In 1989 this Fire Protection Committee became the Zululand Fire Protection Association (ZFPA) and incorporated members along the coast as well as inland. However, in 1990 the Zululand Inland Fire Protection Association was formed by inland members of ZFPA, as it was felt that the two areas had different needs with regards to fires, due to differences in climate, topography and vegetation.
In 1989 Sappi Forests once again took the lead and introduced aerial fire-fighting to the Zululand region. During these developing years, airstrips were constructed throughout the plantations in order to decrease aircraft turn-around times. The majority of these airstrips were built and maintained by Sappi Forests, who soon became known as the leaders in Aerial Fire Fighting.
In 1993/4 large Russian helicopters became available to the Fire Protection Associations. These helicopters have the ability to move large volumes of water. They were heavily promoted by the Fire Protection Associations in the Midlands and Eastern Transvaal.
In 1997, due to the growth of the Association, Denise Bouwer was contracted to assist with the administration duties and Denise performs an important role in terms of admin, finance and operations.
In 1998 Jake Oosthuizen (Zululand Fire Protection Services) was contracted to the KZNFPA as the Operations Manager and was succeeded on the 1st November 2004 by Simon Thomas. The aerial firefighting operations continued to grow in KZN Midlands and became known as Firestop and in 2006 the shape and face of KZNFPA started to change – so what is KZNFPA today?