Saturday, December 2, 2023

Rural fireman despairs at impact

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Kiwi rural fire officer Paul Shaw doubts he will ever see anything as devastating as the lastest Australian fires.
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The former farmer and volunteer firefighter trained while in the navy before returning to the family farm near Te Akau in Waikato. 

He ended up being the go-to guy when the district needed a fire put out. 

It was through his efforts that by the mid nineties the isolated rural community had its own volunteer fire brigade.

Today he lives at Matarangi on the Coromandel Peninsula working as Waikato principal rural fire officer following the merger of rural and urban fire services. 

He is also one of an elite few in New Zealand with the experience and skills to operate as aerial attack co-ordinators. Using a command aircraft they orchestrate the dangerous, shifty work of directing aerial water bombing of fires.

Shaw has also experienced first-hand what it is like to fight the Australian fires but what he is seeing this week eclipses even his own experiences there.

He was posted to Tasmania last January to help oversee the air operations controlling fires, only to be home for 24 hours before having to head south to co-ordinate the devastating Tasman fires. 

Come mid-September he was headed to northern Queensland to experience what would be only a light lick of the flames now raging.

“Things really started to kick off when we were managing operations over 270,000ha of fire in New South Wales where we were redeployed to.”

With more than 50 aircraft including Iroquois helicopters and a giant water-bombing plane capable of dropping 6000 litres at their disposal the men were in control of a considerable air force to suppress the flames.

However, looking at the situation now Shaw doubts any number of aircraft can do much to stymie the spread of flames, simply because the area burning is so big. 

Fire intensity is measured in kilowatts a metre, with typical fires at 4000-8000kw capable of being controlled by fire retardant and careful water bombing backed up with ground hosing.

“But the fires we are seeing over there now the columns 10-20m high, they are 50,000kg to 80,000 kw a metre and more than aircraft can control. That is probably hard for the public to understand when watching them but they can’t be stopped easily.”

Commanders like Shaw end up being tasked with casting aircraft water along the flanks of the fire where heat intensity is lower.

“We can try to draw a line in the sand and try to stop the fire or try to redirect it. Our job a lot of the time is dealing not with where it is but controlling where it may end up.”

When Shaw came home in late September the fires were just as intense as they are now but their limited area made them more controllable. 

“My prediction is that they are only going to get worse. The weather conditions are not looking good.”

Flying and commanding from the relative safety of an aircraft above the fires Shaw appreciates the risks his counterparts face on the ground, similar to troops in the trenches during World War I slogging it out while newly minted pilots flew above the carnage unfolding below.

“There are times you can be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. You have a wind change and the flank of that fire that is four to five kilometres long swings 90 degrees. Suddenly that’s coming right at you.”

He feels for rural Australians who have suffered three years of drought and risk losing their livelihoods in these fires.

At home he is warily eyeing the summer’s high winds and low rainfall around Coromandel-Waikato, having already overseen a major fire near Colville.

“The Coromandel is high risk. You have what we call the wildland-urban interface. It is a case of not if but when we get a bad one and there is huge risk for loss of life. The area tends to have one-lane gravel roads in and out with limited ability to escape.”

NZ has 179 rural firefighters in Australia now. Shaw said subject to a medical check he could return but it will depend on how the fire season here shapes up.

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