Two experienced Northland firefighters are leading the charge for New Zealand crews helping combat fires raging in the Australian state of Victoria.

Michael Sullivan and Kevin Ihaka from Forest Protection Services in Whangarei have been given command of two separate groups of 40 Kiwi firefighters working around the coastal town of Lorne, 150km southwest of Melbourne. Other firefighters are from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Invercargill. The Victorian fires have destroyed about 125 homes, and more homes and infrastructure are under threat from drought and moderate winds that are fuelling the blaze around Lorne and further along the Great Ocean Rd. Mr Sullivan left for Melbourne with 22 firefighters, including seven Northlanders, on January 2 while Mr Ihaka flew out yesterday with a further 22. There were no Northlanders in Mr Ihaka's group.

He said before his departure the leadership of Northland rural firefighters was trusted because they have previously worked in Victorian fires. This is his sixth deployment to Victoria, while Mr Sullivan has also fought fires there in previous years. "Apparently these fires are burning in very steep areas in the west where I've never been before but we've had a fair bit of experience in Australia. It's pretty easy for us to walk in and start I guess."

National rural fire officer Kevin O'Connor said both deployments were for three weeks, with a possible extension, depending on conditions which were currently extreme in southern coastal areas. "Working conditions will be arduous, with steep and inaccessible terrain, plus high temperatures. Numerous aircraft are currently working on the fires."


The fires have destroyed 2500 hectares along a 40km front and are threatening the Great Otway National Park, the Mount Cowley Tower and water supply catchments. The latest deployment is the 17th by the New Zealand Rural Fire Authority since 2001.