NZ firefighters helping tackle Australian bush fires reflect on their work

4:32 pm on 14 January 2020

New Zealand fire fighters are contending with long days and tiring work as they help their trans-Tasman colleagues fight the worst bush-fire season on record.

NZ firefighters in Australia

Photo: Supplied / Fire and Emergency

The fires have taken a number of lives, destroyed homes and properties, killed millions of wildlife and engulfed thousands of hectares of land.

The New Zealand contingent is based in Queanbeyan in New South Wales.

On Tuesday, they were having a rest day and some spoke about the work and the difficulties they face.

Ken Keenan is a volunteer firefighter from Southland.

''In a typical day we might drive two hours for a start and then walk for probably another hour or two hours to get to the fire line and you have to be flexible in what you are doing because it's unexpected what you might strike. The likes of yesterday where we thought we were going to a moderate, spot fire and we got there and it was quite intense and the plan changes pretty rapidly, but you deal with that.''

Keenan is one of 21 fire fighters, all mainly volunteers, who went over earlier in January.

New Zealand has been providing assistance sending fire fighters on rotation since October.

Strike Team Leader is Bruce Janes from Rangiora.

He said 14 to 16 hour days for the five teams were common.

'Military-like' discipline

''Just got to be very disciplined. Soon as you get back you sort of almost run through the shower and get to sleep. You are very focussed, military-like on your hydration, nutrition and getting adequate sleep.''

Janes said the first week involved getting equipment sorted.

He said the work has involved securing some live and some not so active fire edges around key areas and making sure fires do not threaten property.

Janes said while the physics of a fire were the same in any country, what made the Australian ones different was the size and speed of it because everything was so dry.

''That is a real watch out for us, just the speed it can get going, even through big forests. In grass fires back home it moves quickly and changes direction quickly just as the wind shifts happen, but here you are seeing that in the forest, these very quick direction shifts of the fire, and pretty big fires, up to 20-metre flames, just depending what it's running through.''

Nelson fire fighter Erik Wardrop said those volunteering to help out in Australia knew what they were in for when they signed up.

He said their training and high level of fitness certainly paid off.

''We are already prepared but it is also about monitoring everyone and just making sure everyone is maintaining good health both physically and mentally.''

Astounded by support

Emma Gibb, from Tauranga, said she had been blown away by the support they were getting from locals.

''Not only around small communities we are working in but the wider (community). We have had people from Canberra coming out to run events to raise money to help support the cause and everyone that is involved with feeding us and supporting us and supporting the brigades and all the volunteers giving up their time and yeah, the locals are just there willing to help.''

Janes said the reaction to the New Zealand contingent was outstanding and very humbling.

''We were on the plane (coming over) and they let us get off first, they gave us a clap, they expedited us through Customs. Everyone is shaking your hand and giving you things. It is just very humbling you know.

"We are always very serious about what we are doing here, you know - work very hard, set a good example - but that makes you work harder, you know, just that great empathy from the people of Australia, it's amazing.''

The New Zealand firefighters are returning home on Monday and will be replaced with another team.

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