For 14 to 16 hours a day, Kiwi firefighters have been on the front line in New South Wales.
They’ve worked alongside their counterparts from Australia and Canada, and helped save communities from destruction. But while they were well prepared, the conditions proved difficult at times.
Bruce Janes, strike team leader from Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) who was helping fight the 65,000 hectare Charley Forest fire, said although the physics of fire was the same all around the world, these blazes were more intense.
“In grass fires at home, it moves quickly, it changes direction quickly just as the wind shifts happen, but here you see that in the forest, these very quick direction shifts of the fire.”
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The fast-moving fires were ferocious, some with flames reaching 20 metres high, and forced Kiwi firefighter to adjust their tactics.
“That’s the caution for us is just how big, hot and quick it moves, that’s our key safety brief.”
In addition to being physically prepared, crew leader Erik Wardrop said it was important to be switched on when in front of the flames.
”You’ve got to be right on top of your game, mentally, just keeping tabs on weather, predicted fire behaviour and the topography that you’re working with.”
The conditions weren’t easy. Temperatures were dramatic compared to the mild conditions they came from, and the heat was made even worse by the heavy, protective “clobber” they had to wear. Despite this, crews were persevering in the insufferable heat, drinking a lot of water and resting where possible.
Flexibility was proving to be a useful skill in these conditions. Crew leader Ken Keenan from Southland said adapting to your environment, no matter how dangerous, was just part of the job, and that the crews travelled there knowing what to expect.
“We know it’s going to be long and hard and arduous, so we’re prepared for that.”
But battling the blazes was only half the job.
“Fifty per cent of it is the fire fighting and looking after crews, but the other 50 per cent is looking after your crew from an emotional point of view,” Janes explained.
He said if the crews had “military-like” focus on hydration, nutrition and getting adequate sleep, they would be fine.
Since departing New Zealand on January 8, the five crews worked closely with the Aussies to limit the destruction and spread of fires, and help affected communities. Janes commented that the reception they received from locals was “very humbling”.
“Amazing, [it’s an] amazing thing to be a part of.”
While the crews were very serious about their job and always worked very hard, the kindness they received made them work harder.
Unfortunately, the battle was far from over for the country, according to Janes. He thought the drama would continue for months, with Victoria’s fires only “just kicking off”.