Southern firefighters cool down

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 21/02/2014
Southern firefighters
Supplied
REST EARNED: Southern rural firefighters Warren Heslip, Joesevata Natuikata, Vuniani Qoro, Ken Keenan, and Andrew King take a break while fighting fires in Victoria.

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A group of southern firefighters have returned from the heat of battle fighting blazing bushfires across the ditch.

Rural southern firefighters Warren Heslip, Ken Keenan, Andrew King, Josevata Natuikata and Vuniani Qoro landed back in Invercargill on Wednesday night after a three-week deployment in the fire-ravaged Australian state of Victoria.

The men were among 2000 firefighters, including 42 from New Zealand, fighting to save homes while fires blazed in Gippsland.

Lightning strikes started the Victorian fires and many small fires merged to form a massive blaze covering about 140,000 hectares when the men were extracted.

It was the third deployment for Southern Rural Fire Authority team leader Mr Heslip, while most of his crew had also been to Australia to fight bushfires.

However, it was Stewart Island firefighter and Department of Conservation ranger Andrew King's first time experiencing the Australian conditions.

"It was the heat that hit you," he said after returning to his family on Stewart Island yesterday.

"Going from 13 to 14 degrees to 40 degrees makes it tough and the low humidity keeps the fires burning."

Plenty of water is needed but drinking too much was also an issue, King said.

"One Aussie firefighter drank too much water and did not supplement it with electrolytes and his kidneys packed up," he said.

The scale and magnitude of the fires burning in eastern Victoria were also very different to New Zealand, he said.

"The training provided by the Southern Rural Fire Authority stands you in good stead but nothing can truly prepare you for what you encounter," he said.

During their time in the fire zone, King and Keenan were also involved in extracting a group of Australian firefighters cut off and trapped by fire.

Relaxing with his children at the beach on a balmy Southland summer day, Mr King said he was exhausted and glad to be home. But he would not hesitate to put his hand up if the call for help came again from Australia.

"It's about standing beside those who need help and giving them a hand," he said.

Mr Heslip said despite previous experience, the latest trip had been the most challenging.

"The heat was terrible, with no respite," he said.

"The haze and smoke was so thick we went five days straight without seeing the sun. It was just an orange glow in the sky."

There was a lot of hard work with picks, shovels and bulldozers to build containment lines designed to steer the blazing fires around rural communities, Mr Heslip said.

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Several other southern rural firefighters left New Zealand this week to join the ongoing battle to contain three major fires in far-east Gippsland.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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