NZ firefighters trapped when resources stretched - inquiry

Resources were stretched to the limit when six New Zealand firefighters were trapped by flames while fighting Victoria's massive bushfires in December last year, an inquiry has found.

Eleven experienced New Zealand rural firefighters were sent to Australia last December to help battle some of the worst bushfires in Victoria's history, when six of them were caught in a wildfire burn-over incident near the town of Mansfield on December 16.

They were hospitalised and treated for burns. All have since recovered and returned to normal duties.

A team from the Victoria Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Victoria Country Fire Authority investigated the incident and released its report today.

They found that the main contributing factor in the men's predicament was difficulties authorities had in determining the main fire's potential, and the limited escape routes available to the men.

This was exacerbated by the unavailability of aerial support and reconnaissance due to "extensive demand" by other firefighters in the area. This compromised the accuracy of fire mapping.

The team also found that "insufficient regard" was given to intelligence from the fire sector commander on the day before the incident.

The investigators found that personal protective equipment was effective in preventing injury, except when it was not worn correctly.

They also reported that some locally issued face masks proved to be unsuitable for the type of bushfire operations that the men faced and that there were some minor breaches of standard procedures.

"It was an unfortunate event with multiple factors combining to create an environment in which an accident such as this could occur," said New Zealand national rural fire officer Murray Dudfield.

"These findings are being circulated to the rural fire industry in New Zealand and the lessons learnt will be actively promoted and used in the ongoing training of our people."

He said it was clear from the report that the crew leaders involved acted quickly and with "a high level of intelligence and professionalism" when the extent of the threat to their teams became apparent.

"Their prompt action and the quality of their decision-making, along with the immediate first aid applied to the injured by the other New Zealand firefighters, reduced the extent and the severity of the injuries suffered by crew members."

The Victoria bushfires burned a million hectares of land over 48 days, destroying 18 homes and injuring 27 firefighters, including the six New Zealanders.

- NZPA

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