Firemen home safely after fighting bush fires

Firefighter returns from Aussie bushfires

JAY BOREHAM
Last updated 05:00 04/03/2014

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Mike Donovan thought he knew everything about fires until he joined Task Force 1.

The Puhoi Volunteer Rural Fire Force deputy chief has returned from fighting bush blazes in Australia with the 22-strong force made up of rural Kiwi firemen.

"I've been doing this for 16 years or so and I thought I knew most things, but when I got there I figured I didn't know that much," he says.

The group spent 18 days working in five-man crews trying to contain fires in the Snowy Mountains in Victoria.

Members spent the first 8 days working 14 hour shifts to protect the small town of Goongerah.

They were tasked with dry fire fighting and blacking out, Mike says.

"We worked in areas already blackened by fire to put out burning areas and stop them spreading.

"The biggest danger to us wasn't really fire - it was the trees and animals," Mike says.

"We had trees coming down around us all the time."

Eucalyptus trees drop their branches without warning and fire damage increases the risk.

Two fire fighters were killed by falling limbs in the area last year so concern was high.

"Where we were working was also well known for brown and tiger snakes so that was another thing we were always wary of," Mike says.

Poisonous Australian funnel web spiders were also everywhere, he says.

"There are a number of risks involved but we are very well trained as far as looking out for each other and knowing when things are gong to hit the fan. We know to get out and have escape routes planned.

"One crew did have a close call when a fire started chasing them up a gully but they got out pretty quickly."

The force was given two days rest and relaxation after its first 8 day stint.

Temperatures spiked to 42 degrees celsius with winds gusting 80 kilometres per hour on the night before members were due to start work again.

Stringy bark from Eucalyptus trees floats into the air when burning, curling up like parachutes and travelling for kilometres, Mike says.

"So basically all our hard work in the first week was for nought because they had so many spotovers from the high winds."

The force changed tactics in week two and started back burning to protect homes.

"We set more fires than we put out," Mike says.

"People were saying to us that they could actually sleep easy for the first time in a long time once we had completed our back burning tasks."

The fires covered an area of 350 hectares when the force arrived and had spread to 100,000 hectares by the time it left.

But Mike says the task force made a huge impact and the work it did will protect Goongerah.

A second force has now been sent over and Mike is hoping to return in the near future.

He has nothing but praise for the Victorian Country Fire Authority.

"I hate to say it but compared to us, we've probably got a lot to learn."

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