Firefighting on Cape Town mountains – with the drought, where does the water come from?

I have been asked the question where water comes from that the helicopters use to fight the mountain fires that have been raging through the Helderberg, Peninsula and Cape Town mountainsides  the past couple of weeks. It is fairly common knowledge that sea water introduces salt to the soil and often does more damage to the soil and vegetation in the long term than the fire does. Fynbos in particular needs the bush fires to germinate seeds, burn away dead foliage and rejuvenate the soil. If it weren’t for residential and commercial concerns, the best thing on Cape Town mountains would be to let the fire burn out.

But of course all our mountainsides and hillsides provide spectacular views and therefore residential buildings have been built higher and higher up, exposing more property to fire risk than ever before. The question we need to ask ourselves in this time of water restrictions is: do we use precious potable water from reservoirs to help control and extinguish fires? Or do we use sea water to solve our short term needs, with long term ecological implications?

After some research online, I have seen this trend:

  • helicopter pilots will pull water from any available source to quench a fire, including the sea, but primarily lakes, dams, reservoirs, rivers and even swimming pools
  • when hovering close to the water, salt water spray causes an increase in helicopter maintenance requirements, which means pilots prefer to use fresh water
  • there will be long term damage done to soil if large quantities of salt water are dumped

So unless there is absolutely no fresh water within a short distance of the fire, we will continue to see our water reserves diminished as our brave firefighters use everything available at hand to protect life and property.