"The biggest fear is not going home."
This is what Mark McCrorie thought when battling fires during the 2019-20 black summer fire season in New South Wales, Australia alongside 17 other New Zealand volunteers.
The 18 men and women, including Central Hawke's Bay and Tararua District men Simon Osborne, James Baldwin and Jeffrey Gatchel, have been awarded a Bushfire Emergency Citation by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian for their "compassion, courage, and generosity".
In December 2019 Rural Fire Service captain Simon Osborne from Ongaonga, having fought fires in NSW, was approached to recruit rural firefighters to volunteer in the state.
Forest Corporation NSW and Working on Fire Australia decided who went and the first New Zealand volunteers arrived on Christmas Eve.
Crew leader Mark McCrorie from Canterbury said volunteering was "no different to the pager going off at home".
The crew were RAFT crews (remote area firefighting team) fighting fires for on average 18-hour days, with seven days on, one day off, he said.
The longest day was 20 hours - "we were finished for the day heading home then we got a call back up that there were properties in threat.
"Fires are unpredictable, the biggest fear is not going home.
"It doesn't matter how much experience and the people you've got around you, it can still turn sh** in a hurry, having your head screwed on and just focusing on going home."
Osborne said fighting fires in Australia was a different experience for the New Zealand volunteers who came away with new knowledge and skills.
Here, rural fires are intense but short, lasting a day or two followed by two weeks of 'mop up and patrol' - checking for hot spots and extinguishing them.
In Australia, particularly eastern states, fuel types and typography differ, and fires are larger, hotter and can run for a week or so, Osborne said.
Dry conditions in the 2019/20 season meant fuel material was "basically tinder" and other fires were started by lightning.
"Because of the nature of that particular fire season they were just big campaign fires ... there's satellite pictures [which show] the whole southern eastern side of NSW was on fire."
Techniques are also different, giving the volunteers "invaluable" experience to bring home.
In Australia a bulldozer digs a fire break around the fire and crews use hand tools to turn the soil over to put it out whereas in New Zealand fires are usually fought by water.
McCrorie experienced "fighting fire with fire"- burning bush ahead of the fire to "drown" it so the intensity is lower than what it would be if the fire weren't controlled.
They also had to be aware of the wildlife.
"If we want to have a break here, you just sit on the ground. You can't do it over there, everything wants to kill you, whether it's a snake, a spider."
They were also involved in some animal rescues, particularly in the southern parts of the state, some koalas were rescued and taken into the welfare centres.
"Some of our team, they rescued koalas, it was cool, that was an experience the team will never forget," Osborne said.
Given the severity of the fire season, the Premier's citation was awarded to paid and volunteer firefighters and other volunteers and community members who worked providing resources and welfare.
"Normally firefighters may receive medals for heroic actions, but this was pretty unique for New Zealanders," Osborne said.
The recognition, alongside the award, from the local communities was "unreal".
"Everywhere we went if we were in uniform, even coming back on the plane, the appreciation from the Aussies was just unreal," McCrorie said.
"Then to get the citation awarded, yeah, pretty special, it's a bit of recognition for stepping out and helping."