Firefighters back from Aus

DOC rural fire officer and Fire Depo manager Ken Rodley and Rural fire officer and crew leader Chris Hayles
DOC rural fire officer and Fire Depo manager Ken Rodley and Rural fire officer and crew leader Chris Hayles

Two Marlborough firefighters who helped battle bush fires in Australia have returned home unscathed but exhausted.

Chris Hayles and Ken Rodley were part of a 41-strong firefighting contingent from New Zealand deployed to help Australian firefighters extinguish multiple fires burning throughout Victoria bushland since Christmas.

They were two of seven firefighters from Marlborough involved in the emergency response.

Mr Rodley is the fire depot manager with the Department of Conservation in Renwick and Mr Hayles is a rural fire officer with the Marlborough Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority.

They endured difficult working conditions in more than 40-degree heat, dodging falling burning trees and battling thick, swirling smoke.

They worked in separate taskforces in the Gippsland area of Victoria and were based at 200-person emergency camp at Orbost five hours from Melbourne.

Multiple fires have raged across the territory since December and have destroyed 165,000 hectares of bush. Although there were no fatalities, fires came close to settlements and 11 properties were destroyed.

Mr Rodley was responsible for "blacking out" in hot-spot areas or back-burning to create fire breaks while Mr Hayles created complex fires where multiple small fires are converged and extinguished.

Both taskforces worked on average eight hours a day for seven days followed by two lay days.

Mr Hayles said the deployment was a "logistical nightmare" for firemen dealing with one of the most active bush fires ever seen in Australia.

In each taskforce, crews were broken into four-person teams and used 4-wheel drives to access isolated bushland, covering 5km each day.

Mr Rodley said the conditions were harsh.

"Every fire was bad. In Australia we were dealing with different conditions New Zealand firefighters aren't used to."

Firefighters used dry firefighting and were armed with chainsaws and rake hoes to clear burning vegetation.

"We are lucky in New Zealand we have water, Australia isn't so lucky," Mr Hayles said.

Soaring temperatures meant firefighters downed fluids on the hour.

Mr Rodley laughs: "We drank a lot. Every hour we had to drink two bottles of water and a Gatorade."

"We didn't wee much," Mr Hayles adds.

Mr Hayles recalls the worst fire he experienced was on February 9 when the weather conditions worsened.

"It was very similar conditions to Black Saturday [in 2009]," he said. "It was 41.3 degrees with a wind speed of 50km/h and humidity was 8 per cent which is extremely low. As we ripped out vegetation the fire embers swirled around us and the smoke was so thick you couldn't see more than four feet in front of you. The fires kept jumping roads and we rushed to back-burn so the fires didn't engulf us. It is the most active fire I have seen in Australia. The wind picked up the fire embers and would transport them 10 to 20kms away."

As fires inched closer to the settlement of Orbost, home to 10,000 people, Mr Hayles' taskforce turned their attention to asset protection.

"Areas of principle interest such as schools, community halls and the fire station had to be protected. On the last day the fire burned right to the back door steps of the fire station.

"I saw Black Saturday in 2009 when more than 170 people were killed. It was lucky this time there was no loss of life and only 11 properties were damaged."

It was Mr Hayles' third firefighting mission to Australia and he was well aware of the risks.

"The Australian firefighters would not have put us in a dangerous situation. You are more likely to be killed by a falling tree. The problem is the trees have seen so many fires cross them they are burnt out and their wood is no more than 4 inches thick. These trees are 30-40 metres high and weigh up to 30 tonnes. Last year two Australian firefighters were killed by a falling tree and we held a minute's silence on the line in their memory."

It is the first time Mr Rodley has been on an emergency response to Australia and he has no doubts about returning if required.

"My parents didn't want me to go. My father was a firefighter years back and he knew what we were up against. If I was able to go back I would do it, it was a great experience."

The Marlborough Express