Australia–– A Helitack 280 helicopter can draw 1,325 litres of water into a tank and dump it on a bushfire. It can also dump the same amount of raw sewerage on a team of 29 fire fighters as they battle a blaze some 30 kilometres south of Port Macquarie on Australias east coast. The operation can then be repeated for three hours until everyone on the ground gets a good taste and two of the boys have to go to hospital. This isnt some weird hypothetical, it happened last Tuesday, and to get the details I caught up with a fire fighter who wanted his name kept under wraps. As he explained, hes been getting enough shit from his friends already.
VICE: How are you feeling? Fireman: Pissed off. I mean, we got cleaned up but I still cant believe it happened.
So can you describe the situation? Yeah we got a call that there was a fire burning out near Kew, just off the Pacific [Highway] and the crew got there just after 6:30am. It wasnt a big fire but it was dropping spot fires along the highway and that was obviously a problem for traffic. We started getting a fire line together while they brought in two mid-size helicopters to do water dumps on the actual front. And when did you notice they werent dumping water? Well I didnt notice anything. I was fighting a fire and that kept me occupied but some of the other guys said the water was all discoloured and it had a real smelly back-spray. Then around 10 oclock which was 3 and half hours later by the way – a council engineer called the commanders and said theyd been pumping water from the wrong pond. They thought they were using treated water but it was raw sewage. How did they get the ponds mixed up? I dont know. The idea is that they pump water from the nearest source and this case it was a sewage treatment plant. Apparently someone said that the pond was secondary water and it was safe but it wasnt. It was just a mistake is what I heard. And did you get hit? Oh yeah, all over. You know, youre working under the helicopters as they come over and they dont have pin-point accuracy. Every time they do a drop you get all this mist that blows everywhere. Plus youre out there working, youre not covering up and it gets all in your eyes and mouth, all up your nose. Its fucked.
So what was the reaction when you all found out it was sewage? We thought it was kind of funny. Or at least I did. But then they sent in the paramedics and they explained the health risks, like you can get Hep A and everyone was like fuck that. We had to wash in this chemical stuff and wear biohazard suits and by then everyone was pissed off at being placed so unnecessarily at risk. One of the guys called the workers union and now theyre helping us settle it. We just work too hard for this kind of shit. And thats not even a pun.
[Chuckling] No, I guess not. Yeah, not when two of the guys were taken up to Port Macquarie hospital because they had open cuts that could have gotten infected. Im not a doctor but I know that raw sewage in an open cut is bad news. The rest of us just got instructed to visit our doctors and call if we got sick.
Did you get sick? No thankfully. I got home and had a really, really long shower and told my girlfriend about it. She was just as pissed off as we were. None of us got sick though, to my knowledge.
And what did your friends say about it? Most of them have been good. A few of them thought it was funny. Ive got one mate who thought it was really funny but hes nearly 30 and works at KFC.
So you still view some jobs as being worse? Oh yeah, fighting fires is usually great. Just this was a low point.