Fire and ice

16:00, Oct 26 2012
Fire on ice
ON ICE: A survival shelter.
Fire on ice
ON ICE: A hugalug.
Fire on ice
ON ICE: Bob Mortimer, left, and Paul Manson on top of Castle Rock.
Fire on ice
ON ICE: Bob Mortimer at a Scott Base sign.
Fire on ice
ON ICE: A Boeing A320 Airbus which transported the crew to Antarctica.
Fire on ice
ON ICE: Scott Base.

Bob Mortimer isn't one to shy away from a challenge.

If that challenge means battling a blaze of extreme heat he'll take it on. The same goes if the temperature drops well below freezing - an environment many people can only imagine.

Last week, the latter became a reality for Mortimer, who boarded a Boeing A320 Air Bus for Antarctica. He was joined by a crew of 25 "summer" staff who will spend the coming months working in various roles at Scott Base, home to New Zealanders on the ice.

bob mortimer
Timaru Fire Service training officer Bob Mortimer

Mortimer had met them all before - in Christchurch leading up to their departure. Their earlier meetings were primarily designed so Mortimer and fellow fire service training officer Paul Manson, of Nelson, could teach the crew some vital aspects of fire safety. Training included understanding fire behaviour, aircraft firefighting, apparatus use and how to handle hazardous substances.

Mortimer and Manson travelled to Antarctica for a week-long trip to reinforce what they had already taught the crew in the warmer climate of Christchurch.

Knowing the rules of fire safety in Antarctica, like anywhere, is paramount.


bob mortimer
ON ICE: Bob Mortimer and Paul Manson getting ready to board the C-17 for their flight back to Christchurch.

The continent is extremely dry, making it susceptible to fire. However, fires on the ice are rare, according to Mortimer. He believes that is because the systems in place are second to none and staff go about their work "with extreme care".

"They have excellent house-keeping. Everything is nice and tidy, nothing is stacked up around fire exits, etc. Everyone is aware of the dangers."

Scott Base is also home to various types of fire safety technology, which Mortimer and Manson tested during their visit.

bob mortimer
ON ICE: Antarctic staff kite surfing on the ice on their day off.

"The whole base is covered by sprinklers, smoke detectors, heat detectors and in sensitive areas they also have a Vesda [very early smoke detection apparatus] system," Mortimer said.

The Vesda serves its purpose in the most at-risk areas of Scott Base, including power stations and sub mains - alerting staff as soon as smoke is evident.

Mortimer said all of the above processes and fire navigation tools had played a huge role in fire prevention.

bob mortimer
ON ICE: Castle Rock to the left and Mt Erebus taken at 9.30pm.

However, despite Scott Base having all the latest and greatest technology, the one thing it lacks is a fire engine. Mortimer said if a fire did break out, staff would have to rely on their American counterparts at neighbouring McMurdo Station to respond.

Given the 3.8 kilometre distance between the stations, it is not a big ask. There are not many places in the world where you can call on a "neighbouring" country in your time of need, knowing they will be within view, with lights flashing, in just minutes.

Mortimer and Manson completed staff training and system checks over six days - with the Sunday reserved for recreational activities. Sundays at Scott Base are spent in the great outdoors, exploring a world many people will never get the privilege to experience.

bob mortimer
ON ICE: A view of Mt Erebus from the cockpit.

When the weather is right, one of the most popular activities is kite surfing, a hobby many people adopt during long stays on the ice.

Another popular activity is to climb Castle Rock, which Mortimer conquered during his stay. The experience offered wide panoramic views of the barren ice, Mt Erebus and Scott Base, dwarfed in the distance.

Of course, any outdoor activity in Antarctica is weather dependent, taking into consideration the combination of temperature and wind-chill factor. If visibility is less than 30 metres, wind speed is more than 50 knots, or the wind chill is greater than -73 degrees Celsius then the outdoors is a no-go-zone.

A wall chart at Scott Base indicates to staff when it is safe to brave the outdoors. Temperatures and wind speeds listed as green means it is safe to go outside, yellow is restricted use of the outdoors and red forbids anyone to leave the safety of Scott Base.

Mortimer's experience of extreme change in Antarctica's weather meant on one occasion he was not able to see within a few metres in front of him, due to a howling blizzard. During his time on the ice, temperatures averaged -17C, but on his last day the continent showed him exactly what it was capable of, dropping to -40C.

"We went on the skidoos, travelling at approximately 50kmh, with a wind chill temperature of the minus high-60s. It was very cold."

The overall Antarctic experience is one Mortimer was honoured to have been a part of. "Just being there" was the one single highlight, he said.

"My feeling was it was a unique experience to see the different environment.

"There're very few people that get the opportunity to go down there."

The experience came to an end on Wednesday, last week, when the C-17 Globemaster arrived on the ice to transport the fire safety experts, along with some of the "winter" staff, back to Christchurch. The aircraft, which is one of the largest in the world, made headlines this month when it touched down at Christchurch Airport, marking the start of its summer Antarctic programme.

Mortimer has now settled back into the warmer climate of his Timaru base, but admits he would love to repeat the trip.

"Too right," he said.

The Timaru Herald