Volunteers help in bushfire hell

KELLY DENNETT
Last updated 05:00 13/03/2014
Firefighters

HOT DAYS: Photos captured by Waitakere Rural Fire Station chief Denis Cooper show the fires the pair were dealing with.

Firefighters
Kelly Dennett
HOME AGAIN: Waitakere Rural Fire Station volunteers Stephen Bishop, 43, and chief Denis Cooper, 45, right, have returned from a stint fighting fires in Victoria, Australia.

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If the snakes and spiders don't kill you the falling trees will.

It sounds grim but it was all in the line of duty for Waitakere Rural Fire Station volunteers Stephen Bishop and Denis Cooper.

The pair literally played a part in shaping Victoria's bush fires along with 20 other New Zealanders at the request of the National Rural Fire Authority.

Earlier in February they travelled to Orbost, 375 kilometres to the east of Melbourne and home to The Man from Snowy River, where they were based for up to three weeks.

Every day they would travel further out to the town of Goongerah amidst the bush where most of the fires raged.

Five-hour hikes to get to more remote fires wasn't unusual and as well as braving Australia's wildlife and 40 degree heat, Mr Cooper says the hairiest experiences arose from falling trees.

"You don't get any warning, just a cracking sound," he says.

"You have to rely totally on your team-mates."

Both have eight years' experience as fire crew volunteers at Waitakere and were able to put their rural skills to good use during days that lasted between 12 and 17 hours.

Primarily they worked on guiding the fires to avoid property and people through methods like back burning and preparing fire breaks.

Mr Bishop says Victorian fire crew have a different philosophy to New Zealand when dealing with fires and predictable weather patterns allow them to prepare for it.

The fires span such a significant area and burn so quickly that it's almost impossible to get all of the blazes out so other methods are used, he says.

Although there were hundreds of firefighters on the job the pair worked in a group of five and say teamwork was key to survival.

"The wind changes quickly so it can be volatile," Mr Bishop says.

"You can be working away quite well and the conditions change. You don't get that kind of speed in New Zealand, we were told to be constantly on the ball."

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- Western Leader

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