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Saturday, July 27, 2019

When, how and where do you evacuate 239 children under the age of 8-years during a MONSTER fire?

I could probably sit and write a whole book about what happened last week on Project Canaan. But for today I will just write a blog and hope that it gets even half of the reads that Chloe’s “Guest blog” got last week with 5,000+ readers.

For months I had been telling people that the 10th Anniversary trip would be “EPIC!”.  I used the word over and over to a point of overuse.  But I knew in my heart it would be true. We had been planning it for a year. From the building of our very own amphitheatre that sits on the side of our man-made lake, to a live art performance by the children that would be life changing, to a super-charged Camp Canaan (complete with a petting zoo that included a monkey, baby piglets/goats/calves and one-day-old chicks), to the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister of the country who is a dear friend and supporter.
Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku.
I had not factored in 36-hours of raging fires that burned almost all of our farm, missing every building (except for the chapel which burned in front of my own eyes in only two minutes), and almost broke our family from physical and emotional exhaustion (not to mention heat and smoke inhalation).  And, as you know if you read Chloe’s blog, I ended up being admitted in the hospital with very high blood pressure (I was later released and am doing follow up medical check-ups – don’t worry, God isn’t finished with me yet).

Ian in the fields looking up at all the smoke and fires on the hills.
Let me try to quickly explain all the different fires that happened, and the locations will make more sense for people who have been to Project Canaan.   Please note that ALL the fires came from the initial one (let’s call it Fire #1) that was set up behind the Emseni buildings on the morning of the 10th Anniversary celebration, but I am going to number the eruptions to help you understand the chaos and flow. Here is what happened as best we can put it together:

Fire #1 – set behind our fire break up behind Emseni Campus (9AM Thursday, July 18th), it was monitored and managed by our staff.

Fire #2 – winds picked up and reignited the fire, which then jumped our fire breaks and burned towards the Long-term Volunteer Lodge, down to our house.  At our house the fire split with one part burning over Fire Mountain and the other part went around our house and on to Moringa Guest house Fires were beaten down and everyone went to bed. (5PM – 10PM July 18th).

This video shows the fire burning on around our house on Night #1 - it did not come in beyond our fencing.

Fire #3 – the winds picked up again and reignited the fire at Moringa Guest house and sent it racing down to the Harp’s house (2AM to 5:30AM on Friday July 19th) and when the fire was under control, those fighting that fire went back to bed, exhausted.

Electrical pole burning by Moringa Guest house.
Fire #4 – Around 11:30 AM on Friday, July 19th the winds picked up again and the fire reignited by the Harp’s house, racing down towards the baby home and Kibbutz.  Everyone on the farm was called in, the babies were evacuated to the toddler home, the Kibbutz children (who were all at home due to school break) were evacuated by the children’s home vehicle, and the farm itself was a raging wildfire. Kibbutz mothers arrived searching for their children, only to find them all missing, and they were distraught. Finally they found them all at the toddler home, safe and sound.

Fire #5 – this really is part of fire #4 as it jumped over the baby campus (or burned around it) and then went down in to the gully straight towards the schools, then on to Khutsala, burning the chapel down to the ground and then racing on all the way to the medical clinic at the front gate. (1PM – 3PM)

Fire #6 – the fire was now back up at the top of the property at the Long-term volunteer lodge, heading like a freight train towards the Emseni Campus where 147 children (ages 3-8) live. (2:45 – 5PM July 19th)  I’ll explain the evacuations below.

Fire #7 – this fire reignited from Fire #2 on the other side of Fire mountain and it raced down towards the Greenhouse, Pump houses, Layer barn and Dairy.  (4PM to 1AM on July 20th).

There are so many facets of these fires that I could write about, but for today, let’s go back to the title of this blog. At what point do you make the call to evacuate 239 children from 2-weeks-old to 8-years-old? That was at the forefront of my mind while fires were erupting in all directions around us. 

I distinctly remember being up at the Lodge and Ian telling us all that if the fire jumps the fire break there, it will head straight to Emseni. I told him that I needed him to tell me when we need to evacuate the children. We didn’t want to panic them, but I needed enough time to get them to safety.  He was the only one who could make that call.

Ten minutes later, without taking his eyes off the fire, Ian said, “The fire has jumped.  You need to evacuate the children at Emseni now”.

I called Bryan and asked him to quickly take all the 147 Emseni children on a quick walk down to the Dairy (1.5 mile walk) to see the cows. Then I sent David Bryant with the van to pick up the 3-year-olds who would be slower walking.

I drove down to the baby home and we evacuated the 50+ small babies (under age of 2-years) from the baby home over to the toddler home, for the second time that day, putting 90 children in that house.  Our nursing team removed all the children’s medical files and put them in a car. We moved diapers, wipes and formula to the toddler home, then commandeered all available vehicles to be ready to evacuate those babies if the fire pushed through Emseni down to the lower campus.

The plan was to take the 90+ babies/toddlers to the Kindergarten (the fires had already burned through there and were stopped by the 1.5 miles of “back burn” another team did from the main road) and the bigger kids would end up going to the Primary school to sleep.  Amber had all buildings unlocked and ready.

 This video shows the second baby home evacuation on Day #2.
I need to stop here and tell you how incredibly proud I am of our entire Project Canaan staff. EVERYONE who was able came to help, and no one panicked.  The volunteers who were there moved swiftly and worked tirelessly for hours and hours through smoke, fire, flames and on their feet, without complaint or panic.  My family (Ian, Spencer, Chloe, Jane and Andrew) ran miles and miles either putting out fires, delivering water to people beating the fires with tree branches or moving children from A to B.

The fires heading towards the children’s homes were subdued and around 5:30 PM and we decided to bring the Emseni kids back up from the dam.  One staff member from each and every home was stationed outside the home that night (they took shifts) to walk around and watch for embers reigniting during the night winds.  All was quiet at the Children’s Campuses and our children slept soundly.

By 6:30 PM our Ian and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in our bathroom/closet with Spencer and Chloe in a state of shock, emotionally and physically exhausted beyond any comprehension. God had protected us all, and He was with us, but wow, no words can describe what we all experienced that day.

Only 30 minutes later we were called to see if we had any gasoline for the water bowser that had run out of gas.  We did, so our kids got up again, drove the gas down to the farm and came back home. An hour later Ian got a call about another fire (#7) that was heading from behind Fire Mountain down towards the farm. We couldn’t move. We were done.  So, the team continued without us and Tim Lambert and Matt Marschall came from the Nkonyeni to help the guys flood the fields with the water irrigation lines.  We are thankful for their help.  Those fires were stopped around 1AM on July 20th.

The next day, Saturday, July 20th, I woke up and thought I might be having a heart attack. Ian and Chloe took me to the hospital and I was admitted with very high blood pressure. I was later released and our final event, the “Music on the Mountain” concert, went off without a hitch on Sunday, July 21st at 9AM – noon.   

I am writing this blog while watching the waves on the Indian Ocean, getting some much needed rest.  I will be getting further medical assessments next week, but for now am feeling good.   While I know that God was in control of those fires for 36 hours, and He was our protector, I am still very much human, and I did put the children’s safety squarely on our shoulders.

A year of planning for the 10th Anniversary events had come to fruition, and everything planned was executed with excellence by our amazing team. It does seem that my prediction of the week being “EPIC”, was clearly an understatement.

We will be meeting with a large team of stakeholders next week to work on a more comprehensive fire plan for Project Canaan. 

Thank you for reading this whole, long blog. Thank you for your prayers, your thoughts and your love. 

Many of you have asked how you can help us, and there are two areas that we really need help with right now.  The first is our Diaper Drive which has been extended to August 5th.  If you click on this link  you can buy diaper and wipes for our children and they will be shipped to our warehouse and into a container that comes to Eswatini in August. We have 500 packs more to go to be full!

Secondly, we have not been able to do fully assess the damage to water lines, crops, electrical lines etc, but we do know that we will need funds to help us rebuild the chapel and repair other damages. If you would like to make a contribution toward our Emergency Medical fund you can do so by clicking on this link in the US and this one for Canadian donations.

Live from Durban … I am thankful for rest and restoration.


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