Australia — Barrie Hunt lives with the roar of a bushfire and the screams of the firefighters as the flames roared past. But what disturbs the Rangiora volunteer firefighter is what he calls the cover-up of the incompetent management which put a New Zealand fire crew in front of one of the destructive Victorian bushfires in 2006.
Australian media attention this week on a report into the management of the fire crews has reignited the debate. The report, commissioned by the Victoria Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Victoria Country Fire Authority, and released last year, found some minor operational procedures had been breached, some face masks were unsuitable and protective clothing was effective only if worn correctly.
Australian bushfire expert Athol Hodgson said yesterday the New Zealand crew should never have been in that position.
“The people who were running the fire knew these circumstances existed, yet the crew was still sent out there,” he said.
Rangiora-based Hunt, a Department of Conservation rural fire volunteer, was part of a 140-strong New Zealand contingent of DOC, local authority and forest company crews fighting the Victorian bushfires.
Hunt claims some crew leaders were inexperienced, the fire was not accurately surveyed, safety gear was not correctly worn, lookouts were not in place and those who expressed concerns about their safety were told to “p… off home”.
“I never want this to happen to anyone else again,” said Hunt, who suffered severe facial and airway burns. He said he was put into a crew led by Nelson’s Nick McCabe to mop up two fires which had spilled over a road outside Mansfield on December 16, 2006.
Hunt, who has 21 years experience, said his fears about working above a large fire were ignored.
“I died three times before emergency services could get to me.”
New Zealand DOC firefighter Don Clark revived him and was “one of the real heroes”, Hunt said.
His criticisms are backed by two rural firefighters who were at the scene, but who do not want to be named because of their connection to the New Zealand Rural Fire Authority.
Hodgson, president of Victoria Forest Fire, said the crew was put in a situation where there was every likelihood of being burnt or killed.
Anyone could have seen the situation was dangerous, he said.
“It was a very large fire in a gully and they were sent to an uncontrolled edge with unburnt material between them and the flames.”
Australian volunteer firefighters were taking up the issue, he said.
But New Zealand national rural fire officer Murray Dudfield has no concerns about how the incident was handled and is happy with the final investigation report.
Detractors did not understand the big picture and hindsight was a great thing, he said.
“The crew was tasked to that area and leadership was required.”