People are being urged to think of fire safety with Hawke's Bay facing another hot, dry summer and fire bans in place.

Hawke's Bay's deputy principal rural fire officer Allison Ludlow has had first-hand experience of the worst case scenario when, in August last year, she was deployed to fight out-of-control wildfires in Canada.

When Ms Ludlow joined the Waipawa Volunteer Fire Brigade 10 years ago the last place she could have seen herself was fighting a 168,000ha wildfire in the middle of bear and rattlesnake country.

But last August, with just 36 hours notice, she found herself alongside 592 firefighters from New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, America and Canada fighting just one of the wildfires causing terror and loss in British Columbia, Canada.


Ms Ludlow, just appointed deputy principal rural fire officer for Hawke's Bay, was one of 80 New Zealanders deployed to Canada to help during the state of emergency. Before the Kiwi team arrived more than 600,000ha of land and forest had gone up in flames and thousands of people had been evacuated.

"We were deployed pretty quickly but that's normal. We have to be ready to go at any time," Ms Ludlow said.

"Flying into Vancouver we could see thick smoke about 20 minutes before we landed. We didn't know where we were going exactly but we knew it was in bear, cougar and rattlesnake country.

"At first I was scared. I was really worried about the bears and the rattlesnakes. And we did see bears and we knew there was a grizzly in our area displaced by the fires. But the fires were so intense that after a while I didn't worry about the wildlife and by the end I felt it was a privilege to have been among such animals.

"We were on the Skeetchestn Indian Reserve in Deadman's Valley, near where rattlesnakes are captured and milked for their venom. The toilets were 200m from our tents and you had to be very careful of rattlesnakes at night - we were in their space."

The Kiwi team was assigned to Elephant Hill, a fire "about the size of Auckland" and just one of the wildfires burning at the time.

"It was unimaginable - so much bigger than anything we see over here. There were towering tornadoes of fire ... and they would travel and merge and you couldn't predict where they would go.

"I was in awe of what I saw and there was a huge sadness at the loss, for the people and the animals. It's not a new thing but this was their biggest fire event in recorded history."

The teams of 20 were briefed every morning because the situation was changing hourly. They worked in 12-hour shifts, 14 days at a time, with two days off.

"It tested your resilience. We were fighting the fires manually, with heavy machinery and helicopters working around us. At one stage the Kiwi team had to cut a firebreak up a steep area to stop the fire getting to oil and gas pipelines.

"They called the firebreak the Kiwi Highway and our job was to protect those pipelines. At one stage the fire got close and all resources were pulled in to hit it ... massive planes roared in dropping fire retardant. It was very exciting, but I was ready to come home after five weeks."

Allison says the teams were extremely well looked after.

"We had the best management team. Fire and Emergency New Zealand really knows how to look after people. They are really on to it, we were well fed and the firecamps were very well set up.

"We went into Kamloops - the nearest town - on a day off and the Canadian people were amazing. They were so respectful of what we were doing and they came up and thanked us."

Ms Ludlow says there are no barriers to being a female firefighter. Women are actively encouraged to join the fire forces.

"In Hawke's Bay we have had women in our rural fire forces for a long time, we have been at the forefront. We have had longstanding women firefighters in our brigades and brigade management.

"If you are considering volunteering or a career in the fire forces, please do it. It's a massive organisation offering so many opportunities. And if you do go for it - put your name down for international deployment. It would be good to see others have the same amazing experience I have had."