This week, as Makana’s Fire Chief marks 35 years of service, GMDirect asks about his lifelong dedication to keeping his town safe.
“People remember the two houses that were burnt – but not the 40 houses and an entire school that were saved.”
There have been many serious fires in and around Makhanda but the 2015 fire was the worst the Makana Fire Services Manager has ever had to deal with. It was a nightmare.
It started behind the electrical substation near PJ Olivier and with winds of 110km/hour, quickly tore up the hillside towards the school and rows of houses in upper Sunnyside.
“Every fire fighter was called up and all the volunteers were out, including Basil Mills and his crew.”
They saved the school and its hostel, and more than 40 houses on and around Hillsview Road. But the wind was relentless and the fire tore past the State Vet, jumped across to Waterloo Farm and across the mountainside, and easily jumped the Southwell Road, on to Stones Hill.
“We stopped the fire at Stones Hill. It was very unfortunate that two houses did burn down. But we did manage to save more than 40 houses and the school with its hostel.”
That was nearly 20 years after Welkom’s ‘baptism by fire’ in 2008, when he stepped up as the town’s Chief Fire Officer.
That fire started on the Highlands road and burnt a terrible swathe southwards, fuelled by tons and tons of invasive aliens, recently felled by Working for Water.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen helicopters brought into town to fight fires,” he said.
“I had to go up in the spotter plane to tell the helicopters exactly where to do the water drops.”
A photo by Stephen Penney shows one of the helicopters filling up at the Waainek Water Treatment Works.
“That was a real baptism by fire,” said Welkom, who in 2005 was called to the Lewis Stores fire in High Street. The biggest building fire was in the Monument auditorium in 1994.
“His Majesty’s bioscope, Furn City – and the last one was Birch’s factory in Froude Street,” he recalls.
Welkom started on 8 March 1986 as a learner fireman.
“I’ll never forget that day,” he says. “It was a Saturday.”
He’d completed school and a year later, still without work, the learner fireman job came up.
“I grew up in Scotts Farm and it was very important for me to get work, so I took a chance and applied.”
“There were 30 of us applying for four positions. I was shortlisted and interviewed twice.”
He heard nothing until, early one morning there was a knock on the door.
“It was people from the fire station telling me I mustn’t forget that I was going to start work that day.”
Somehow the message that he was hired hadn’t reached him.
“I always remember that day because it was on a Saturday. I was informed I had to start that same day at 8am. I had no transport, so I had to run from Scotts Farm not to be late. I will always remember that day.
When he got there, he learned that they’d come to his house the day before.
“My mom worked at National Lamps in Cobden Street and my dad was a builder – no one was home.”
The young William took to the job enthusiastically
Mr Hickman was the fire chief.
“We had a dual function – ambulance services as well as fire. Only in 1990 was that handed over to EMS.”
The fire station was built in 1909 and when Welkom started, the origin stables were still there.
“In the old days, they used horses to pull the fire trailer,” he said.
The entrance for the horses was in Carlisle Street.
“But we renovated that space and turned it into a recreational room for the fire fighters on standby.”
One of the things the young Welkom couldn’t understand was why there were different uniforms in the fire service.
“We got powder blue shirts – the same as the meter readers. But the Reilly brothers wore white shirts and black pants.”
He found the answer: Norman Reilly, who lived in the house next door to the Traffic Department, and Charlie Reilly, who kept pigeons at a house where the ACVV retirement home now stands, were officers.
“That’s when I decided that’s what I want to be, and I asked, ‘How do I become an officer?’”
“’Register with the SA Fire Services Institute and start studying,’ is what they told me. So that’s what I did. And continued to do.”
As his qualifications and experience grew, so he climbed up the ranks:
“You start as a learner fireman. Then it goes: Fireman, Senior Fireman, Platoon Commander, Station Commander.
“Finally in 2008, I was made Chief Fire Officer.”
“Hickman, Bodenstein, Ingram, Julius, Sauls – then in 2008 it was me who became Fire Chief. Knowing where I started off in Scotts Farm, that for me was my greatest achievement. Having the opportunity to become fire chief of the town you are born and bred in.
“I had the opportunity to serve my community – to make sure I protect my community at all times. That for me was my best moment.”
The worst moment have been responding to accidents, and to incidents where people have lost their lives.
“It’s your job to try and avoid loss of life, so when you get to a building that is well alight and you can’t send fire fighters in, and someone tells you there is a person in there – knowing you couldn’t save that person… that is terrible.
Some of his most memorable moments have been his involvement in ensuring three Presidents were safe during their visits to Grahamstown.
When Madiba visited in 1996 to receive the Freedom of the City of Grahamstown, Welkom was a senior firefighter and he was dispatched to be part of the convoy.
“The current Mayor (Mzukisi Mpahlwa) was Mayor then [in 1996]. Mpahlwa was also Mayor when Cyril Ramaphosa address supporters on Freedom Day two years ago at Miki Yili Stadium.
“While I was driving the Mayor and his wife to the airfield to welcome the President, I could remind them what happened in 1996.
“Mrs Mpahlwa had a welcoming garland ready for President Mandela and she sprayed it with water to keep the flowers fresh.
“But when the bodyguards saw it, they were not happy. They said, no, the old man is going to get sick.
“Mrs Mpahlwa had to physically dry the garland. They inspected it again and then she was allowed to put it around his neck.”
“I’m 55 years old so I’ve got a while to go in the fire service,” Welkom says. I would still like to do more to broaden our scope, to make sure the whole community is protected. There are resources to respond – we have a collaboration with the Sarah Baartman District Municipality to provide these tools.
“This building has been here since 1909 and I would like to see the fire services continue to grow in strength – even once I’ve retired. It is critical and essential.
The Fire Chief’s future plans are to expand the municipality’s fire services into rural areas .
“We started off with a satellite in Alicedale with the assistance of the District Municipality. Then we plan to move over to Riebeeck East.
“It has always been one of my plans in the IDP to broaden our service to outlying areas.”
Staff and family
“None of the people who started with me and before me is in the Fire Service any more,” Welkom said. “Of those original fire fighters, I’m the last man standing.
“My passion and dedication for the fire service drove me over the years – being able to serve and protect my community.
“I am grateful to my staff for their support over the years and for always ensuring that the Fire Service flag flies high.”
William Welkom is married to Vinola. They have a son, Jeremy, and daughter Jillian.
“They are my support pillars over the years and still are. I am forever grateful to them.
“My wife always supported me and understood the demands of my job – even when I sometimes had to attend incidents such as major bushfires that have required me to be away from home for days.”