Western Bay of Plenty Youth Search and Rescue students are training in an American national park where firefighters have battled deadly wildfires.

Sophie Wardell, Jack Niles, Laura Degas and Tom Hoffart, aged 15 to 18, are participating in a four-day training exercise with the Marin County Search and Rescue team in Yosemite National Park.

The students arrived in San Francisco on Sunday with instructor Neil Penniston, who said they had just arrived at the national park where there were wildfires still burning.

However, Penniston said the team was training alongside the very experienced Marin County Youth Search and Rescue team and did not feel in danger.


"We feel 100 per cent confident going into the area we are going into ... The park is so vast there is areas where we will still be able to train in," he said.

"We are with a very competent bunch of young individuals."

Youth Search and Rescue students learning new rope skills. Photo/Robert Gehlen
Youth Search and Rescue students learning new rope skills. Photo/Robert Gehlen

Penniston said the Western Bay students had offered their services to help battle the Californian wildfire which had claimed the life of heavy fire equipment operator Braden Varney, 36.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials have said the fire had spread to more than 17,000 acres (6800ha) since the wildfire began on Friday night.

The Ferguson fire had seized parts of the Mariposa county area, threatened about 108 homes and businesses and had more than 1800 local and state firefighters deployed to battle the blaze.

Penniston said the students had so far learned valuable rope skills with their hosts and were treated to a county dog team demonstration.

"We came into contact with more search and rescue dogs yesterday than there is in our entire country. That puts things into perspective," he said.

"It has been a steep learning curve for some of these young people we have got with us."

The students had also hiked what was said to be the highest peak in the Marin Hills, Mount Tamalpais, with local firefighters and had visited the fire station and sheriff's office to meet the county sheriff.

The students learned new skills every day. Photo/Robert Gehlen
The students learned new skills every day. Photo/Robert Gehlen

Penniston said the four students were chosen from 26 applications to attend the exchange visit in the United States.

"It is an opportunity for these individuals to be in a completely different terrain to see how a different organisation works," he said.

The Western Bay YSAR team hoped to make the pilot programme an annual exchange between the two search and rescue teams.

A delegation from Marin Search and Rescue will visit Tauranga in December to join the Western Bay YSAR's annual end-of-year exercise in the Tongariro National Park.

The students return to New Zealand on July 28.


The Youth Search and Rescue programme is an independent non-profit organisation which enables students to develop skills to participate in becoming full active members of community volunteer Search and Rescue and Emergency Management organisations.

The programme is delivered by skilled instructors with backgrounds in emergency management, search and rescue, military, medicine, outdoor education specialists, police officers and firefighters. The three-year programme covers a range of skills and specialist training.