Tauranga firefighter Emma Gibb talks to reporter Sandra Conchie about some of the heartbreaking scenes she witnessed while fighting the Australian bushfires.
"I would go back in a heartbeat."
That's what Tauranga senior firefighter Emma Gibb says after spending 14 days battling the raging bushfires in Australia.
"It's what we do and what we train for, and it's something we can do to help," she said.
"And I guess we all know that at the end of the day if New Zealand needed it, Australia would be here with no hesitation."
Gibb was one of four Bay of Plenty firefighters among a crew of 21 New Zealand firefighters who flew out of Auckland on January 8 and arrived home on Monday.
Her regional crew included Michael Bridge from Whakatāne, Ray Dunbar from Taupō, crew leader Tony Young from Rotorua, as well as Thames-based Department of Conservation fire officer Karen Ismay.
The Australian bushfires have claimed the lives of at least 30 people, including four firefighters, millions of animals, destroyed hundreds of homes and burned more than 10 million hectares.
Gibb and her fellow Bay firefighters spent 12-hour days at least battling the fires at Charleys Forest east of Canberra, which covered 65,000 ha.
The fire crew was based at Braidwood Fire Station, which was about a 30-minute drive from the blaze at a small town called Araluen where they had focused their efforts.
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Gibb said it was hard to explain the feeling of going there.
"The unknown was there but not fear...You know the risks you're going to encounter, but we're trained to do this job and to look after each other, and to do our job as effectively and as safely as we can.
"It took a bit for my family to get their heads around why I would even want to go but at the same time, they're really supportive and understand it's what I love doing."
She also felt safe in the hands of her crew leader Tony Young.
"[I] knew how capable he was so that gives you that bit of reassurance that you're going to be okay," she said.
But Gibb said the reality of what they encountered soon hit home.
"Working on the fireline was intense as anything could have happened..."
"There was some really huge bushfire and the heat and humidity were extremely challenging even for some of our seasoned firefighters.
"There were days when we were sent to a fire which was just huge"
Their job was to patrol the fireline and ensure the flames burned up to it and not over it and making sure the fire didn't spread.
"We spent hours doing that and were all assigned a section we were responsible for."
Gibb said fires would start from embers burning about 700 metres to 1km away and later link up with the main fire.
"If you can just imagine a mature eucalyptus forest and a fire just roaring through it...," she said.
"We saw helicopters dumping buckets after buckets of water on to it and it just had no effect."
Gibb said the only thing that could be done was to try and contain the fire and steer it away from homes as best they could.
"It's not something I found scary, but it made it all very real and really puts the level of devastation into perspective because there is just no stopping it," she said.
"Even some of our most seasoned firefighters haven't seen the fire behaviour like it is over there at the moment... the fire behaviour over there is just insane."
Gibb said the impact on the forest animals was particularly heartbreaking to see.
"One of the saddest parts was sitting on the fireline just watching kangaroos and other wildlife escaping and they were just exhausted hungry and thirsty."
Witnessing a burned possum being treated by ambulance staff was "so unreal", she said.
Gibb praised the support from Australian residents, including those who weren't directly affected.
A resident set up a fridge filled with snacks and drinks for the firefighters on the side of the road, which was powered by an extension cord into a nearby home with a sign that read, "For the firies, stay safe".
"We all signed the fridge before we left to come home to say a big thank you," she said.
Gibb said one day a Canberra car club arrived at the station with a $4000 donation.
"The raw emotion of support from people like that gets to you...," she said.
"The community strength and resilience is just amazing. Everyone wants to do their part to help where they can and it's pretty incredible... I would go back in a heartbeat.
"It's just really humbling and as a Kiwi, it's really cool and quite mind-blowing in some ways."
Another group of 21 Kiwi firefighters arrived in Australia on Sunday, including at least three from the Bay of Plenty.