Rural firefighters practise skills

About half a hectare of private land was set alight by Doc Wakatipu rural fire operations manager...
About half a hectare of private land was set alight by Doc Wakatipu rural fire operations manager Mark Mawhinney and his team yesterday to gain experience in fighting rural fires. Photo by James Beech.
Fire raged and people screamed near Arthur's Point yesterday - however, the blaze was a controlled firefighting exercise by the Department of Conservation (Doc) Wakatipu and the Queenstown Lakes District Council and the cries came from oblivious Shotover Jet customers a few kilometres down the valley.

A total of 10 Doc rural firefighters, four of their counterparts from the council's horticultural team and a team from Heliworks took part in a live rural firefighting exercise near the end of Wattie's Track, off Gorge Rd.

A landowner wanted about half a hectare of land cleared of mostly introduced scrub and approached Doc with the idea of using the work for a drill.

The timing was right, as Doc Wakatipu rural fire operations manager Mark Mawhinney said the area was moving into its annual rural fire-risk season.

It was a good idea to train now so it would be fresh in everyone's minds, he said.

"Both the council and Doc are rural fire authorities, so in order to fight rural fires we have to train in the use of all this equipment in theory and the manual side of it and also fire behaviour, so it's invaluable experience for the crews.

"It makes a big difference fighting an actual fire, rather than just running pumps."

The exercise began with a Heliworks helicopter dropping water from a 800-litre heli-bucket to fill, in several trips, a 2000-litre portable dam, held open by the fire-suited horticultural team, at the base of the paddock.

The heli-bucket was repeatedly filled with water by a Doc crew operating a pump on the Shotover River bank, about 1.5km down the valley.

Mr Mawhinney used a gas burner to set alight the paddock from the top after his crew dampened down a buffer zone to help control the fire.

The shifting wind, power poles and lines were worked around.

Rural firefighters used walkie-talkies and hand signals to co-ordinate their deployment of the high-pressure hose from the portable dam and applied water to extinguish the fire.

Hosing from the dam was an option which depended on the ferocity and speed of the fire.

The dam allowed firefighters to direct and control the flow of water, as opposed to water drops by helicopter.

Neighbours, Shotover Jet and the Fire Service were notified of the operation, which took about two hours.

Rural firefighter Sian Player, from the council's horticultural team, was tasked with visual communication between the pump and hose operators.

It was her third fire experience in about 18 months.

"I think it's fantastic to be prepared and protect this beautiful country," she said.

 

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