Tired, but happy to be back home

ANNA PEARSON
Last updated 13:00 26/01/2013

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Falling trees, stinging ants, venomous snakes and staying clear of helicopters dumping three tonnes of water at a time were very real considerations for six Nelmac and Department of Conservation firefighters in Tasmania.

The men from the Nelson region flew to Hobart at the start of this month, after the Waimea Rural Fire Authority received a request from Tasmanian fire agencies for people with experience in fighting fires in tall timber, remote and high country areas.

Temperatures in Hobart reached 41.8 degrees C on January 4, the hottest it had been since records started in 1883, and conditions were at the "catastrophic" level on the rating system developed after the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.

Nelmac conservation and ecology team leader Dave Newton and his crew spent their first few days across the ditch battling a fire in the Lake Repulse region near Mt Field National Park.

That blaze covered 11,000 hectares, "and that wasn't the big one either. Luckily, the fire pretty well missed most of the houses in that area".

A major priority was protecting the national park, further up the valley from the blaze, with its unique vegetation and "very ancient forest", Mr Newton said.

"We had the opportunity to nip up there one night - it's a beautiful area. I think it's one of the main [national parks] in Tasmania. We were concerned that if [the fire] got up into the valley, it would be very hard to control."

The men had a briefing every morning, where they discussed an action plan.

"Safety is quite a crucial factor. You never fight a fire in unburnt fuels - in most cases, it's always from behind, or on the flanks," Mr Newton said.

"One of our major hazards was the eucalyptus trees. The base burns out inside the trunk, and they fall over by themselves.

"You had to make sure the fire was put out in the trunks before attempting to cut them down. Some of them were hollow, and they were just burning up like chimneys. You had to put a hose up inside them."

Tiger snake bites and stings from jumping jack ants were other hazards, which the team managed to steer clear of.

"We came across [jumping jack ants] several times. We were incredibly surprised how quickly they got really aggressive."

The terrain in the Lake Repulse area was rocky and difficult, "very much like the mineral belt country in the back of Nelson. It's pretty rough".

Mr Newton said temperatures were manageable, at about 25C most of the time, but peaked at more than 30C at the end of the Nelson team's visit. It was hot work in their fire overalls, and one man was drinking up to six litres of water a day.

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The Nelsonians were needed in different areas, including Forcett, where they dampened hot spots and protected a firebreak.

"The Forcett fire went right down the peninsula towards Port Arthur, and that's where it burnt the most homes. We went there on our day off, and the damage was pretty staggering."

The fire covered 44,000ha, and its perimeter was 193 kilometres long.

"In many places, it reached right to the coastline, jumped peninsulas and started again on the other side."

The men stayed in seven different places, worked 12-hour days, and had one day off in two weeks.

"We were just filthy some days. We'd get home, have a shower, watch a bit of telly and go to sleep.

"One day, we worked for 14 hours on a fire [in the Lake Repulse area]. They try to keep it to 12 hours, but we had to have special conditions that day - we needed to create a break to the river edge, otherwise it was going to creep under us again," he said.

Mr Newton said Tasmanians were very grateful for the Kiwis' help, which included another crew of six men from Northland.

"People were coming out and saying, ‘Great work'. One lady stopped and gave us a whole lot of McDonald's vouchers - she owned a McDonald's in town. It was quite humbling, the amount of appreciation we got."

The experience showed how important it was for Nelsonians to prepare for a similar event.

"Nelson has the potential for big fires, too, if we get the right conditions. It shows the importance of protecting rural properties."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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