Training proves its worth when the going gets hot

Department of Conservation —  23/02/2021

Many of us keep stuff in the shed for “one day” when we will need it.

But often when that “one day” comes, finding the thing we need among all the other stuff chews up more precious time than expected.

Happily, that wasn’t the experience of Department of Conservation (DOC) Rotorua fire-fighter Colette Wi who knew exactly where her gear was when called to a pine plantation fire flare-up on Matakana Island immediately prior to Christmas.

All go – up to 80 fire-fighters were on the ground at Matakana Island.
📷: Steve Bolton

Although fires on conservation land have been few and far between in her district lately, she and her colleagues have still been doing regular sessions running the fire pumps – training which Colette says proved its worth when Fire and Emergency NZ called for additional support.

“I got a call from our duty officer on the Sunday afternoon. I had to shoot to Rotorua to pick up my fire bag.  Everything I needed for the next day was ready to go and to be fair, this only happened because our crew has been kept fire ready.”

The crew’s main job was dampening down hotspots in the pine plantation fire to create a 20 metre buffer around the roads and firebreaks.

“There was smoke and flames and flare ups and helicopters and diggers and bulldozers and lots of other crews from near and far. Our team had a fire truck – I’m not sure how many litres of water it held, but it was a fair amount and it would have been filled up at least six times throughout the day.

“It was hard work, it was hot. It was incredible how the fire was burning underground. We would be working on an area with the hose and Scotty packs [backpack holding 15 litres of water] and hand tools only to look back where we had been and it would be smoking again, that’s how hot it was under the ground.”

The real business of forest fires – making sure all the embers are extinguished.
📷: Kevin Buttell

The Rotorua crew was stood down at the end of the day but remained on stand-by to go back again if needed.

Colette says she has been telling everyone about her time at Matakana.

“It was an awesome opportunity – the fire training we have all had kicked in instantly and the work and health and safety for the day still seemed second nature.”

At its peak, the Matakana Island fire flare-up took the fire to more than 40 hectares and involved more than 80 fire-fighting personnel.

Ultimately it was extinguished and there was no loss of life or property, but the intensity of the blaze provided an insight into how quickly wildfires can escalate.

Colette says that’s why it’s always worth reminding people to be really careful when doing any activity which could spark a fire.

“Before lighting a fire always check it’s alright using the Fire and Emergency NZ website and if you are on conservation land check the DOC website to see what special restrictions might be in place in addition to the standard DOC rules.

“Even then, dry, hot weather, the presence of leaves, pine-needles or twigs and wind could mean the better decision is not to light up even if you are allowed to.

“We practise to help control and put out fires, but we’d much rather we never had to.”