Adrenalin and fear at roar of flames

Last updated 09:40 12/02/2013
Jacob Knight
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ

DIRTY WORK: Lincoln firefighter Jacob Knight in an area of blackened trees.

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OPINION: Canterbury remains at high risk after a spate of recent vegetation fires, but what is it like to fight them? Volunteer firefighter Tom Fraser says it is hot, dirty, dusty and dangerous work.

Few people understand just how quickly and ferociously a vegetation fire spreads.

Often fuelled by hot, dry winds they engulf anything and everything in their path.

Flames are indiscriminate - leaping roads, creeks, anything in their path. Embers float hundreds of metres to start spot fires. The fires are random in the way they move; the most subtle wind change can have monstrous effects; a house may burn yet another just metres away remains unscathed.

Flames can tower above you. The smoke is often worse; thick, choking, ominous.

Fighting these fires involves a mix of adrenalin, fear and exhaustion.

It's dirty, dusty, sweaty work.

We yell above the wind and the roar of flames.

Pumps whirr as they supply much-needed water. Radios crackle incessantly. Diesel engines cough as trucks are repositioned. Powerful turbine engines whine on board the helicopters above. Pilots look for flames and dump their monsoon buckets with remarkable accuracy. Sometimes you get doused.

White, black or grey depending on the fuel source, smoke can appear or disappear within seconds. Goggles and masks offer only limited protection.

Often you can hear the fire but can't see it. You peer anxiously around to check you're not alone. Then, within seconds a puff of wind clears the air and you'll face a wall of flames. You suppress the fear.

It's a close-quarter battle - you're on the front line and fighting a lightning-quick and unpredictable enemy.

Orders are definitive and followed without hesitation. You must trust your officers' judgment.

At times you feel overwhelmed, powerless. We try to protect one house surrounded by large pine trees. It's a desperate situation. The trees explode in flames that shoot high over our heads. We're ordered to drop our gear and retreat. While personal safety is paramount there's a bitter taste in our mouths that we couldn't do more.

We reposition the fire engine and get back to doing what we can to fight this behemoth of flame, smoke, noise and heat.

Water tanker crews become our best mates. They carry up to 10,000 litres of much-needed water, while our modern appliances carry about 1500 litres.

Meanwhile, portable pumps make use of any available water supply be they swimming pools, water races or natural streams. Pump operators are under immense pressure to refill an endless procession of tankers and appliances.

The ICP - or Incident Command Post - is the nerve centre of all firefighting operations. Fluorescent vests abound. Roles are stencilled on the back. Coloured uniforms and helmets indicate different fire agencies; the Fire Service, Rural Fire Authority, local council, Department of Conservation.

It's here the Salvation Army, Civil Defence and other groups set up food and drink stations, ambulance staff check on how we are. Animal Rescue crews from the SPCA stand nearby. Police staff cordons to keep at bay the "flame chasers", "scanner listeners" and tyre kickers who come out in droves.

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We welcome any break on the fire ground. Rehydrating is critical.

Food is an additional bonus. We seek updates from other parts of the fire ground and listen over the radio to hear where other crews from our station are operating.

The media hover nearby keen to grab a quote, snap a photo or get the latest update. As a former journalist I understand their predicament - battling tight deadlines and desperate for pictures, quotes or updates.

Nearby, I see a friend and work colleague, crouched beside the road in tears. She tells me her home is under direct threat. Forced to flee with her dog and just the clothes on her back, she awaits news with trepidation. Some reassuring words and an arm around her shoulder are all I can offer.

We check on our crewmates and our equipment. Phone calls are made to loved ones back at home anxious to know what is happening, when we'll be home.

We share food, drinks and updates with other crews - hard-working volunteers just like you from small communities across the region. Men and women of all ages from small towns such as Kirwee, Springfield, Rakaia and Southbridge - places where voluntary service in any form is just part of the fabric of the community.

Without warning comes another desperate call. We're straight back on the fire engine hurrying to the next task.

It's only hours later when we finally leave the fire ground that we collectively and personally reflect on the carnage. Silence as we pass damaged homes, destroyed businesses, smouldering paddocks, crops and shelter belts. Murmurs of sympathy to those affected.

There's a deep sadness at the sheer violence fire can inflict. And, of course, there's a realisation that we have several hours of cleaning, checking and repairing our equipment back at the station before returning to the unfinished chores at home or work.

Tom Fraser is a firefighter with the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Brigade.

- The Press

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