Kiwis hurt after ‘underestimating fire’

Kiwis hurt after ‘underestimating fire’

25 July 2007

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Fire authorities underestimated the strength of a bushfire in Victoria’s high country last year that enveloped a contingent of 45 New Zealand firefighters, an investigation has found.

Eleven of the firefighters suffered burns from the intense heat of the blaze as it passed over them after they took cover in a gully on December 16 last year near Mansfield in the state’s northeast.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) chief fire officer Ewan Waller said the Kiwis’ training and experience, their good leadership and proper equipment helped save their lives.

“The situation was quite extreme – it was a fire of high intensity and it rushed up the hill with a lot of fuel in front of it,” Mr Waller said.

Mr Waller said it had been hard to gauge the strength of the fire as the poor visibility due to smoke prevented the lookouts tracking the blaze from seeing its true power.

Other factors for the misjudgment of the fire’s ferocity included underlying dryness and the remote and rugged terrain.

The DSE investigation said the firefighters also were working in extreme drought conditions where fire behaviour was particularly unpredictable.

Mr Waller said the DSE would learn from the investigation and improve its training and induction processes for its firefighters, as well as for the interstate and international crews.

“This has not weakened our relationship with the New Zealanders – it has strengthened it,” Mr Waller said.

“Very good actions were taken by the New Zealanders in getting them away from danger – they bunkered down until the main fire went over them – it was great on-site leadership that quickly assessed the situation.”

The injured firefighters were part of a contingent of 45 New Zealanders who were working on the Timbertop sector of the Mansfield Fire Complex last year.

Their role was to create a hand-constructed trail around the fire to reduce its spread on the flanks.

But they had to retreat and find cover when they fire suddenly and rapidly increased in a gully below them.

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