Thames-based Karen Ismay is among a group of Department of Conservation staff from New Zealand who have been spending parts of their summer fighting Australia’s raging bushfires.
Wayne Beggs, Greg Evans, Ken Torckler (all from New Plymouth), Steve Bolton (Whitianga), Hugh Gordon and Karen Ismay (Hauraki) have been involved in recent Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) deployments to New South Wales, working alongside 20 other New Zealand professional and volunteer firefighters to assist Australian counterparts.
London-born Karen Ismay, a Recreation and Historic Supervisor, says although the wider situation is one of tragedy – and was immediately visible on her arrival in New South Wales – she thrived in the hard-working team environment.
While many images of the blazes show firefighters with hoses in hand bravely battling fires, Karen Ismay says many of her hours in her two-week deployment were spent on hand tools, creating firebreaks and working with bulldozers to prevent fires spreading.
“In New South Wales there’s so little water resource, we were generally fighting fires by putting bulldozer lines or what’s known as hand-breaks in – working with rake hoes and chainsaws to remove vegetation from the path of the fire,” she says.
Karen Ismay says working days were as long as 16 hours, often starting slowly to determine where resources should be deployed for maximum impact. Weather is a key factor, dictating where crews are sent and where the highest priorities lay on each day.
“We’d drive for an hour and a half, get a briefing, then someone would deliver sandwiches, and once we knew what our task was that day, we’d go off and carry out the mission we’d been given.”
“Every day, there’s an element of risk – but the risk we’re most exposed to is falling trees, because the root systems have been compromised. An Australian firefighter was killed during our time there.”
In some particularly volatile conditions, with temperatures topping 39 degrees, it would be too dangerous for firefighters to venture too far from their trucks “so we would concentrate on asset protection on those days, working around people’s houses, monitoring conditions, and maintaining our escape routes”, she says.
“Locals were pretty keen to stay home, keep an eye on things, and do what they could,” she says.
With a fire perimeter of close to 400km, Karen Ismay only got a “a very small snapshot of what was going on, and that’s all we could physically do”.
Local Australian crews have been working to fight the fires non-stop since November, and the deployment of New Zealand personnel was to give their Australian counterparts a much-needed break.
Fire and Emergency with the support of its partners like the Department of Conversation have so far deployed more than 250 people since October 2019.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s Deployment Manager Bryan Cartelle says the skills bought by Department of Conservation staff have played a key role in New Zealand’s ongoing support for Australia.
“The Department of Conservation staff have fitted in well into FENZ deployments,” he says.
Five further DOC staff – led by Steve Bolton – flew to New South Wales on 10 February, alongside Fire and Emergency NZ and Defence Force personnel, for a 15-day rotation. Two other New Zealand teams also returned home in February.
A big thanks to the dedicated staff from Fire and Emergency, Defence Force and DOC who have been helping our Australian mates in their time of need.