Fighting fires using helicopters is an invaluable skill brothers Kieran and Nathan Sullivan learnt in Canada which they say will come in handy when fighting fires in Northland.

The Whangarei siblings returned this week after a four-month stint fighting a number of large fires that burnt in Sioux Lookout, a town in Ontario, and also fires in British Columbia.

The Forest Protection Services employees left after an invitation by Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario to send over rural firefighters.

"It was pretty well worth it," Nathan said.


After a week-long theory test after their arrival, they went through a gruelling fitness test that involved carrying a water pump on their back, wearing a hose bag and going over a ramp 50 times. They had to finish the task in 14 minutes 30 seconds.

Nathan completed his in 11 minutes 25 seconds and Kieran in 11 minutes 50 seconds.

"There was a lot of learning of things like how they run their hoses out and just different firefighting techniques than ours which works well for them because there are a lot of flat, swampy areas so they're never far away from water," Nathan said.

The training around firefighting using helicopters was a good learning experience, they said. They were taught how to enter and exit helicopters, load and unload, hooking monsoon buckets and sling loads, and cutting helipads while the choppers hovered above their heads.

"There's a lot of helicopter work we can bring back and apply here. Our skill level was on par or even better than the Canadians because we've got more experience fighting different fires so have better ability to adapt to different conditions.

"We used to do 16-hour shifts in temperatures in the late 20s and that's where our experience and fitness came in handy. It felt like we had been working for them for a while," Nathan said.

He said when the alarm went off, they had just four minutes to get ready and they could be gone for anything from an hour to 19 days.

Nathan said 227 fires had already burnt when they left Ontario for New Zealand early this week. The brothers have a few days off before they start work on Monday.

Forest Protection Services' owner Kevin Ihaka, who also helped out in Canada but in a supervisory role, was due back home yesterday.

Next month, three or four firefighters from Canada will arrive in Whangarei and help Northland crews during summer until around April next year.