Kiwis fought fires for 15 hours a day

13 March 2013

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New Zealand —  Geraldine-based Department of Conservation ranger and firefighter Carrie Lakin recently returned from her second deployment to Australia in two years.

She and 21 other DOC firefighters from throughout New Zealand battled blazes in Victoria for three weeks.

Why were DOC firefighters sent to Victoria?

The Department of Conservation is trying to build up succession in fire management. After Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, it decided to set up a programme with the Victorian government.

The reason those fires were so catastrophic was because it did not do a lot of prescribed burning and take fuel out of the landscape. So it started talking with New Zealand about having some of our young people in firefighting go over to learn prescribed burning techniques, because we don’t actually do that here.

I went last year for about three weeks, which was largely a learning deployment. This year was the real thing. The Australians needed a hand. They were exhausted.

We worked on the Catherine Station Razor Track fire for seven days and then on the Harrietville Alpine North fire.

What was your role in fighting the bushfires in Victoria?

Most of the fires I went to were caused by lightning strikes. Big bands of lightning and unstable weather were moving across Victoria and started fires everywhere.

Because the fires are remote, they have a repel crew, which is their first attack crew who fly in and try to deal with the fire with hand tools. If they can’t do that, they pull back and we have to go in and build containment lines. That’s where all the dozers and diggers come in.

The fire is usually in a gully, and our job is to build those lines, so if the fire gets a run up the hill, it doesn’t break over the containment line.

A lot of our work was marking lines for dozers, burning off those dozer lines to make them safer and identifying hazardous trees, so if they were weakened by fire, they wouldn’t fall over the containment line and carry the fire across.

What was the routine of your days?

We had accommodation in a little town called Bright, which looks a bit like Arrowtown, a very pretty alpine town.

We had our briefings in Bright at the Country Fire Authority’s base there. We’d turn up at 7am and pick up our lunch. We all had chilly bins, because it got really hot, so we’d pack up our ice and our water. We’d have a briefing from the incident controller there.

They would give us an incident action plan, which basically detailed our tasks for the day, and up-to-date maps, and then we’d travel up to the fire. Both fires we worked were about two hours’ drive each way from Bright.

So we’d assemble at a safe point from the fire and then go over things again before we got started. We worked 14 to 15-hour days.

What were some of the challenges of firefighting in Australia?

You had to keep in mind that you were walking through raw Australian bush, with snakes and all that. It was also very hot, and a lot of this was very steep country, up to about 1000 metres at the tops.

There’s no water up there, so all of this work was dry firefighting. In New Zealand, we just wet and soak everything. We’ve got the luxury of that. They don’t.

Basically, to get water up there, you’ve got to do over an hour’s return trip. So we were told only use water if you have to. Otherwise, use your handtools.

In Australia, one of the main hazards on the fire line is dangerous trees. A lot of the gum-tree species, even though they survive with fire going through them, rot out in the middle, so any significant wind or event could tip them over.

Because they’re such a hard wood, it’s really, really dangerous. Basically, every time you get out of a vehicle, you have to look up.

Two days before we went, two people were killed in a vehicle by a falling tree. That brought the danger home.

With the fire being below us in a gully, in New Zealand we don’t usually work that way. It was sitting down there, but with this erratic weather coming across, it could turn and push it up and we’d be right in its path.

In Australia, it’s all about maintaining watch and regular forecast updates, and knowing where you are and the location of your escape routes at all times.

Because we were in such steep terrain, we couldn’t see what was going on, so the whole time they had aerial observations. I felt safe at all times, but, certainly, you can hear that thing crackling below, and I suppose in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “OK, yeah, the fire’s below me”. It’s just the nature of the beast over there.

How did you get into this line of work?

I studied outdoor recreation in Christchurch and wanted to get into tourism and outdoor recreation. I thought I’d like to be a raft guide or something like that.

I ended up getting a job in Queenstown working as a hiking guide on the Routeburn Track. I worked there for six years.

I’d always thought about working for DOC, and I did a bit of volunteer work for them in my time off. Then I ended up doing a one-year Trainee Ranger Certificate programme through the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and DOC. That one year gave me a whole heap of qualifications. Since then, I’ve worked in a number of places in a biodiversity role.

Then I moved to Geraldine about a year and a half ago and switched from biodiversity to recreation. I’m now working as an area asset planner, so I manage the department’s huts, tracks and structures in my area.

How did you become a firefighter?

I’ve been a firefighter for about eight years. For DOC we all have to be trained in a fire role, whether it’s as a firefighter or as a support person. It depends on your fitness level, but because of all the land DOC manages, everyone has to be trained.

Canterbury is a very busy area for fire, because it’s quite dry.

I suppose I turned into a bit of a firehead, as we call them. It’s quite dirty, black, horrible work, and some people don’t like it. The call always seems to come at 4.30pm on a Friday, and everyone else would say, “Oh, bloody fire!” but I was always keen to go.


DEPARTURE: The group of New Zealand personnel, including Carrie Lakin and 21 other DOC firefighters, and 22 National Rural Fire Authority firefighters, who were deployed to fight bushfire in Victoria, are pictured with the Air Force plane that flew them.

PREPARED: DOC ranger visitor assets Carrie Lakin, ranger biodiversity Brad Lett and ranger biodiversity Gerard Hill ready to fight fire.

TWO VISITS: DOC ranger and firefighter Carrin Lakin has travelled to Victoria, Australia, to fight bushfires twice in the last two years.


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