THE sound of trees falling, the intensity of the flames and the kindness of the community are among the memories of four Southland firefighters who returned from the devastating Australian bushfires.
Volunteer firefighters Ken Keenan, Graeme Appleby, Brodie Butcher and Nigel Milne were among 21 firefighters deployed to Australia by Fire and Emergency New Zealand.
They returned to Southland on Monday after 14 days of “the hardest job” they had ever had.
Hedgehope rural fire controller Mr Keenan said it was hard to explain what they saw.
“It was the real thing. For sure, it was the most challenging deployment we’ve ever been on.”
Mr Appleby said they learnt a lot because the fire behaviour was different from any they had dealt with before.
“Things can go wrong very quickly in a situation like this. [We] had so much to do unbelievable.”
Mr Butcher said the techniques they had learned could be helpful in Southland.
“The dry firefighters’ techniques are quite impressive. It is amazing what you can stop, slow down and contain. You don’t actually need water to put the fire out.”
Mr Milne said during their 14 days in Australia, they were completely focused on the mission.
However, he knew it was important to contact people back home and try to reach his family at every opportunity.
“They had so many questions… I understand because they were a bit nervous and it was good to talk to them.”
His partner Ange Conner agreed and said it was hard for her to have a “normal day” while he was away. “You still need to keep working, looking after the kids and the house background you were worried what the guys were up to. The kids ask a lot and sometimes you don’t know what to answer.”
She said the first time Mr Milne was deployed the communication was better she understood the fire this time was more challenging.
“The first time they went away, we had really good communication and sent through a lot of photos. The kids could be involved. This time, because they were away and working in different areas, they didn’t have time were in hills and mountains.
“They did not have time to take photos because safety was the priority,” she said.
Mr Appleby said people in Australia always offered them food and drink even put a fridge on the road with the sign “free drinks”.
Mr Keenan said people always thanked them when they had any encounters with the general public.
“We were having breakfast in Auckland and the owner did not allow any of the crew to pay. We tried but he said it was the minimum he could do. It is very kind but was not necessary as we were doing our jobs.”
He was also touched with a gesture from the region’s mayor, who honoured them with a mayoral award.
“It was hard but it was worth it. It is about helping our neighbours out.”
Mr Keenan believed the fires would continue to burn for the next few months, but he was thankful to be able to return to New Zealand safe with his crew. “It was good to see some green grass. It is great to be back home.”