They danced and sang in Glacier National Park, in the chow line at fire camp and at the smokejumper training center in Missoula.
Friday was the eve of their flight home to South Africa, and the crack wildland firefighters from Cape Town may well have broken out in joyous revelry at the mall or the bowling alley.
“Some want to go to Walmart. That’s the spot they love, Walmart,” Corey Nunnally of the Rocky Mountain Fire Co. of Missoula said.
The 16 South Africans, ranging in age from 24 to 39, fly out Saturday morning after a too-short, two-week experience in the mountains of western Montana. Most of it was spent laying fire hose, patrolling and performing other structure protection chores around Lake McDonald at the Howe Ridge fire in Glacier Park.
They finally got to dig line and attack some hot spots on the Rattlesnake fire northeast of Hot Springs, though that fire under the auspices of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes was winding toward extinction.
The visit was a first-of-its-kind project — a private contractor in the U.S. teaming with another in a foreign country to provide a hand crew to fight wildfires.
“All the others are government-agency-goes-to-government-agency to bring them in, and that’s usually management people,” said Troy Kurth, general manager of Rocky Mountain Fire.
Kurth said it’s been a deal three years in the making, working with his Cape Town counterpart Dean Ferriera of NCC Environmental Services and negotiating agreements with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region and the other federal and state agencies in the Northern Rockies Wildfire Coordinating group.
“They all gave their approval to make this happen, so when there were no more firefighters available last month, we were prepared,” Kurth said. “They called us, said here’s your order, and 72 hours later we were fighting fire.”
Half of that time was spent getting the 16 men to Missoula. Some were from the Table Mountain National Park on the fringe of Cape Town. The others were from NCC Enviro, and they arrived on three different flights.
A good night’s sleep, a quick but intensive safety training period, and the South Africans were on the Howe Ridge fire on Aug.24.
A couple of days later a video surfaced on social media venues of their singular song-and-dance at The Loop on Going-to-the-Sun Road. It went viral, with more than 450,000 views.
Luncedo Rorwane said the song in the video is called “Maleven.”
“It’s about a hero firefighter or hero soccer player, something that he does,” said Rorwane.
It’s one of hundreds in the South Africans’ repertoire.
“It’s just a spontaneous, happy reaction to life,” said Kurth, who witnessed the performances a number of times. “When you look at it, you see this come out of these people. You just want to immediately step in with them. They were so happy to be there in that environment working on a fire.”
Forest Service and National Park Service VIPs from around the nation gathered at Apgar last Sunday for a “show-and-tell day” about firefighting efforts at Lake McDonald. Kurth said he spent 30 minutes telling them about the program and asked the South Africans to sing their national anthem, unofficially titled Nkosi Soikelel’ iAfrika,” God Bless Africa.
It was, he said, a moving performance of “a very pretty song.”
The Cape Town crew arrived in Montana expecting to be here for a month, or two 14-day assignments.
“I think we came late. We should have come maybe earlier to see some more flames,” said Rorwane, who goes by “Culture.”
There’s not much of a story behind the nickname he said, “just that I’m a person who like culture.”
He and the other South Africans spent time in one of America’s most scenic national parks, where they saw a moose, deer, chipmunks and mountain goats — but, to their disappointment, no bears. Their last four working days were at the top of Rattlesnake Gulch on the Middle Ridge of the Saleesh Mountains in the Flathead Indian Reservation.
There for the first time, they got to use hand tools to dig fire line the American way. That involved Pulaskis, the half axe, half adze that was half new to the South Africans, who were also introduced to fire shelters and smokejumpers.
“Most people would say, when it comes to wildland firefighting in the states, you guys do it best,” said crew representative Jacques de Villiers, who superintends a Type I hotshot crew in the Cape Town area. “I mean, you have very, very large fires, you’ve developed the (Incident Command System). You’ve done a lot to be able to make managing these fires and managing the vast amounts of resources that you have at your disposal as easy as possible.
“We’re trying to move in the direction where we can do the same and make it easier for our very limited resources.”
Fires burn hot and deadly in and around Cape Town, where the vegetation is more akin to the brush and shrubs of California. It’s called fynbos, a colorful, flowery Mediterranean-type vegetation.
“It’s a fire-driven ecology, so it burns very readily, very flashy,” de Villiers said. “Small fires can get very big fast.”
The official fire season starts in December and runs through April, but that’s getting stretched on both ends, from the start of October to the end of May, de Villiers said.
Training for the next fire season will begin soon after they get home.
The South Africans said they’re eager to return next year, and maybe get more action than this first turn. Fighting fire in Glacier is restricted to MIST — Minimal Impact Suppression Tactics.
“In South Africa we do a lot of direct attack. In fact, we only do direct attack, where quite a lot of it is on the fire,” said de Villiers. “We see a lot of flame.”
Kurth understands that frustration.
“They want to go dig in the dirt,” he said. “All firefighters are the same way. They want to go catch it.”
He’s hoping they and others will get a chance again. The groundwork has already been laid for Rocky Mountain Fire to handle five crews from South Africa and get them to a fire in the Northern Rockies in 72 to 96 hours.
“We’re working with a number of people in the Forest Service and the other agencies to see how we can facilitate this and move into the future,” he said.
The South Africans’ earlier-than-desired departure deprives them of a slice of Montana they were looking forward to. The University of Montana athletic department offered them a discount price on tickets to Saturday afternoon’s Grizzly American football game against Drake.
It was one way of repaying the fire fighters for the goodwill they spread in their short time here.
“They’re experienced and motivated,” said Shane Dodd of Hamilton, one of the four American crew bosses, who came out of fire-fighting retirement to take part in the South African experience.
“The attitudes I’ve seen on this crew ... in 19 years I’ve never seen anything close to it. These guys are halfway around the world and they’re just genuinely grateful to be here.”
Even when things were slow and “most people would have been, uh, doing things that would get them in trouble, they were productive, they were in great spirits,” Dodd said.
The singing, which to Dodd and Kurth seems to have parallels in the Native American culture, acted as a morale booster and motivator.
“It pumped me up,” said Dodd. “I did 23 years in the military and it’s almost like listening to a cadence while you’re running. It’s that same type of thing.”