Fighting Fire with MAN

It’s just past midnight on a freezing winter’s night in Mpumalanga. The operations room of Komatiland Forestry’s Fire Management division is on full alert, its personnel glued to an array of monitor screens linked to cameras hidden deep in its pine and bluegum plantations covering some 125 000 hectares in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Kwazulu-Natal. It is the middle of fire season and standing by is a fleet of 113 fire trucks, manned by world-class drivers whose working life is fuelled by adrenalin and danger. When the fires rage, these men turn to the ‘big guns’ in the fleet, 34 bright yellow fire trucks, all from MAN.

Komatiland Forests (KLF), apart from being Mpumalanga’s largest commercial forestry operation, is also the legal custodian of the indigenous fauna and flora that inhabit some 62 000 hectares across the company’s 18 plantations.

“Conservation plays a pivotal role in our day-to-day operations and apart from preserving our natural heritage, we also have to meet the increasing demand for timber, which means having to produce more timber on less land. As a result, we cannot afford to lose a single tree to fire,” says Ben Bothma, Fire Risk Manager, Komatiland Forests.

According to the Komatiland Forestry website: “Fire management within forestry is an integral and very important tool. Uncontrolled fires have the ability to destroy thousands of hectares of trees. The fires of 2007 which lasted for eight consecutive days caused a loss of more than 80 000 ha burned in Mpumalanga and Swaziland, which in turn caused economical havoc.”

To help mitigate the threat of fire, the operation burns firebreaks under tightly controlled conditions before and during the fire season to limit the damage done by uncontrolled fires.

“Burning of areas is usually done very early in the morning when there is no or little wind, or late at night for the same reason,” the KLF website states. “The controlled fire is started by means of a drip torch, and a section of grass is lit. A fire control vehicle is always on standby, be it a truck with water similar to a fire-engine, or a bakkie with a water tank at the back called a 'bakkie-sakkie'.”

While fire management is based on effective preventative action, the chances of a wild fire breaking loose are very real and as such, KLF’s 113 fire trucks(called Fire Tenders) include a host of purpose-built vehicles from one-ton bakkies to 18-ton 4x4s carrying 4 500 litres of water and capable of releasing a ‘head’ of water extending 100 metres.

“In the old days, we used much longer trucks as our bulk water carriers, typically transporting around 11 000 litres of water infield. They were however, extremely difficult to manoeuvre in the forest and in order to be more effective in emergency situations, we introduced shorter wheelbase vehicles into the fire management fleet in 2006, with MAN trucks being the biggest. Apart from being the strongest water cannons, KLF’s six MAN bulk carriers also serve as water depots to fill smaller fire tenders at a rate of 1 700 litres per minute,” says Bothma.

KLF’s emergency fire response support team is equipped with three MAN TGM 18.240 and three MAN LE 18.220 standard chassis-cab derivatives fitted with ZF PTO units. Each has a six-man crew cab and custom-built fire-suppression body manufactured and fitted by Piet Retief Body Builders.

“The protection of both driver and crew are paramount and our MAN trucks are the safest money can buy,” adds Bothma. “Each unit has a number of sprinklers on the bodywork that douse the vehicle with water to keep the personnel cool while working in fire country. With the right equipment, our fire fighters are able to receive effective training, employing the very latest fire suppression methods.”

Included in KLF’s comprehensive fire management training programme are 27 different courses that reach all employees from labour force to top management. The KLF MAN drivers receive special product training from MAN’s chief driver-trainer, Uys Odendaal.

“The MAN LE fire tenders have been in service since 2006 and KLF drivers are using them to great effect. The TGMs commenced duty in 2009 and I’ve been conducting regular training of both the fulltime driver team as well as emergency support units,” Odendaal says.

Fire management relies on early detection and rapid response, so having a mix of cutting-edge technology working towards these goals is crucial, adds Bothma. “The TGM fire tenders are more sophisticated than their predecessors and effective driver training is essential if our drivers are to get the best performance from the new trucks.”

Based on the MAN driver training programme, Odendaal’s day-long product-training course involves classroom and practical on/off road skills development. “We load the vehicle to capacity with water and focus on the Trucknology features in the vehicle, particularly how to use the manual-shift nine-speed synchromesh gearbox in the TGM. For many drivers, the low-rev green bands of the TGM and LE are new concepts but we have a pass-rate of over 90 percent. Fire truck drivers are impressive, to say the least.”

With much of KLF territory being off-road, both the TGM and LE models are big-league 4x4 hill-climbers with diff locks as standard fitments and speed limiters set to kick in at 95kph. The 162 kW MAN LE has a green band between 1400 and 1700 rpm, displacing 825 Nm of torque. The TGM delivers 177 kW at 2400 rpm and 925 Nm of torque between 1200 and 1800 rpm for rapid delivery of tractive force without excessive fuel consumption. The TGM has hub reduction for enhanced traction, while the LE has a hypoid rear axle for greater ground clearance. Comparing the power-to-weight ratios of the two models clearly shows what technological advancement can achieve, considering both the TGM and LE have 6 871cc motors.

“A fire truck driver must be competent in extreme conditions, moving calmly and quickly through fire storms carrying heavy loads and personnel. Making sure drivers understand the various truck technologies is very important to the way they perform in emergency situations,” Odendaal explains. “In the mountains of the plantations, both the TGM and LE fire tenders have the necessary technology to get to the scene at speed without compromising safety. Using the auxiliary/exhaust valve brake as often as possible is a focus of our driver-training programme, not only for safety, but to help improve overall trip times and save brake lining wear.”

For KLF emergency support team driver, Andries Sihlabela, “the TGM is very powerful but the gears are easy to use. The training showed us how to change gears in the green band using the single-splitter box which is easier than the older MAN’s in the fleet. The single-clutch gearbox also helps us on the steep downhills where we will use low gears and the exhaust brake. The TGM cab is more advanced as well – more comfortable with air suspension on the adjustable driver seat. I also like the power steering. I feel like I have better contact with the road without losing the ease of driving. I really feel safe in the TGM.”

And safety is what Fire Management is all about, at the end of the day. “Every living thing on KLF land is regarded as an asset and it is our duty to conserve the delicate balance they thrive in. Our MAN fire tenders and their drivers perform a vital function in this eco-chain, protecting the lives of our fire fighters while they protect our natural resources and assets” concludes Bothma.