Specialist fire crews called in to help Victoria

By Lindy Laird -
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HOT STUFF: The team leaving Whangarei on Monday for Victoria is, (standing from left) Kieran Sullivan, Northland Forest Protection boss Kevin Ihaka, and Forrest Hermans (from Alaska); in front, Kevin Kraatz and Jacob Lind, (both from Montana). PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
HOT STUFF: The team leaving Whangarei on Monday for Victoria is, (standing from left) Kieran Sullivan, Northland Forest Protection boss Kevin Ihaka, and Forrest Hermans (from Alaska); in front, Kevin Kraatz and Jacob Lind, (both from Montana). PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

When Australia burns, Northland firefighters are often called across the ditch to help douse the fires.

Specialist rural firefighter and Northland Forest Protection managing director Kevin Ihaka has been on the front line of Australian bushfires five times in the last decade.

On Monday he and four staff will arrive in Victoria as part of a two-team, 44-person contingent of Kiwi firefighters helping in the latest outbreaks. One half of that contingent is already on the ground in Australia.

The call came in the same week a total fire ban was declared in Northland, during a period the region has been plagued by what Mr Ihaka described as "a lot of niggly little vegetation fires".

Mr Ihaka expected his team to work in the Gippsland region, east of Melbourne, where they could be stationed for three weeks.

The work will mainly involve tree felling burned trees before they fall, taking "the top" out of the fires' fuel, clearing existing and creating new firebreaks - the lines of containment to hinder fires spreading.

"Our biggest risk is falling trees, not flames," Mr Ihaka said.

But an equal challenge will be the conditions. The Northland team will work in high temperatures and high winds, the worst conditions for dealing with fire outbreaks in the tinder dry, furiously burning bush.

"It burns fast and comes back fast," Mr Ihaka said.

The Australians used different methods to those used in New Zealand, partly dictated by the type of dry, high-growing vegetation, he said. Firefighting did not usually involve attacking a fire close up. The Australian fire service also had sound safety controls, Mr Ihaka said.

"We've got to know a lot of people over there. They're always pleased to see us and treat us very well."

As well as Northlander Kieran Sullivan, who works full-time with Forest Protection Services as an apprentice mechanic and firefighter, the team includes three US firefighters who are spending their off-season working with the company. Jacob Lind, from Montana, and Forrest Hermans, from Alaska, are in Northland for the first time while Kevin Kraatz has worked here during Kiwi summers before and also answered the call to go to Australia with Forest Protection Services.

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