A wall of flames towering 80m in the sky buffeted by 110km/h winds were some of the extreme fire conditions faced by Northland firefighters battling unprecedented and unpredictable blazes in New South Wales.
Four firefighters from Northland returned to Whangārei yesterday after their latest five-day stint in Australia and have spoken of the fiery devastation but the satisfaction of being able to help those faced with fires that have killed at least 25 people and millions of animals since September.
When firefighters Mike Ihaka, Greg Meeuwissen, Karlaus Cook-Hirinui and Ryan O'Neil, who work with Whangārei-based company Forest Protection Services, disembarked they were given a round of applause by people waiting in the Whangārei Airport terminal.
Ihaka, who completed his third deployment to the NSW inferno, said the support the team had received on both sides of the Tasman Sea had been humbling.
"This is my home town - it's awesome to have such a warm welcome and people acknowledging our work," 32 -year-old Ihaka said.
"The best moments have been talking with the locals who are so grateful that we have helped. There are signs out everywhere saying 'Thank you firies and all the kids wave when you drive through the towns."
The team stayed in Tumut, 410km south-west from Sydney, and fought fires encroaching on the community through large forestry blocks.
"The destruction is incredible. Going through some areas there is nothing left. The trees are skeletons and everything is black. Nothing has survived.
He said one day as they battled the blaze they saw people packing up their cars with treasured possessions and heading away from the fire front.
In one case the fire got within 20m of a home they managed to save.
"The locals are so appreciative - you can hear it in their voice when you talk to them."
It was also the third stint by Greg Meeuwissen, who acted as a crew leader.
The Canadian is more used to fighting wild fires in British Columbia but said that experience held him good stead in Australia.
He said they chased some fires and steered the front away from property, and in other cases they had to wait for the fire to get to them.
"It was a little nerve-racking, like a sitting duck."
Meeuwissen said sometimes they couldn't help and the inferno consumed everything in its path.
"Properties melted to the ground and all that was left of animals were bones."
Former Northlander Therese Chamberlain, who now calls Sydney home, was flying across the ditch yesterday with "an element of dread" after spending three relaxing weeks with family in Whangārei.
Chamberlain hugged and kissed all four firefighters and thanked them for their work and bravery when she spotted them at the Whangārei Airport.
"We have been following the news and found it very distressing. Everyone is so frightened and there is an element of dread about going back to Sydney," Chamberlain said.
"The firies are the heroes. They put their own lives on the line to save people's homes and lives."
On Wednesday a team of 10 from Forest Protection services headed to Australia as a part of a New Zealand contingent of 21 after the Australian Government formally requested help. To date Forest Protection Services have sent 41 firefighters to the NSW fires since November 2019.
The Northlanders included Kieran Sullivan and Marty Marshall who would be crew leaders.
Their return date was yet to be decided but they would also be stationed in Tumut.
While weather conditions were predicted to be milder, the crews would be tasked with strengthening control lines which could involve backburning, mop up, cutting hand lines and patrolling.
It would be a long time before the fires were under control and it could mean working 14-hour days.
This latest deployment brings the number of firefighters sent from New Zealand to 179 since late October.
The most risky factor facing the firefighters in their 10-day deployment was the sheer unpredictability of a raging fire.
The latest official data showed that more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land across the continent - an area the size of South Korea - has been razed by bush fires in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand would do all it could to assist.
"The devastation caused by these fires is taking a substantial toll on our Australian neighbours and we will continue to do what we can to assist as they deal with this extremely dynamic, dangerous and ongoing situation," Ardern said.