A GROUP of specially trained remote area firefighters flew out of Taree on Sunday to support the Tasmanian crews battling the out-of-control blazes in the remote north west of the state.
They are all volunteers with various local brigades of the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) and have undergone specialist training to form a local Remote Area Firefighting Team (RAFT). Many of them assisted with the 2013 Tasmanian fires that ripped through the south-east of the state that burnt for almost six months.
Team leader Silas Sutherland from Oxley Island near Taree was there in 2013 but he says the current situation could be more dire.
“It’s worse this time – it’s drier and there are more fires. There’s up to 60 fires burning and they’re in remote wilderness heritage area that hasn’t been burnt before, so there’s no adaptation to fire like with some of the Australian bush.”
The crew will be winched into remote locations by helicopter and use what’s known as dry firefighting techniques which include cutting up burning logs; and smothering fire using dirt and gravel. They will also use radios and signals to show choppers where to dump water when necessary.
It’s a dangerous job and all RAFT members undergo regular training and testing, but it was obvious when speaking with them at the Taree airport before the charter plane arrived, that they were all keen to get going.
“It’s a high risk activity – working around aircraft and getting dropped into remote areas without the assistance of vehicles and just the water we’re carrying,” Silas explained.
Some have been granted special leave from their employers while others are self-employed.
Andrew Coombes is a carpenter from Gloucester and has been a volunteer firefighter for 11 years and a RAFT member for the past five. He loves the spontaneous nature of the work and is grateful to his “easy going clients” who understand when these fire emergencies arise.
Anthony Duff, a firefighter of 17 years experience from the Wingham area, was also keen to be part of the deployment.
“I like being out in the remote bush and have always enjoyed flying ever since my first flight in a chopper back in 1989.”
Gordon Tighe from Port Macquarie was another member of the team able to pack up and leave at short notice.
“That’s the beauty of being your own boss. I’m a contract fencer,” he explained.
For Barry Metz, also from Port Macquarie, community service is a bit of a family tradition.
“My dad was fighting fires back in the 60s at Shellharbour and my brother is a volunteer firefighter in Cessnock.”
Mark Everingham from the Taree area was recruited to the NSW RFS when his local brigade was short of members. That was back in 1997 and he is still as keen as ever and loves the opportunity to learn new skills and put them to good use.
The firefighters departing Taree on Sunday were part of an extensive deployment announced by NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons on Friday. NSW and ACT emergency service agencies have coordinated 140 personnel to assist in the current fire emergency in Tasmania including 100 remote area firefighters, 35 incident management and liaison personnel and five paramedics, along with 30 trucks and two aircraft.
“With more than 56 fires burning across Tasmania, and no significant rainfall on the horizon, local resources are understandably stretched,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.
The local firefighters are due back on Thursday (January 28).