In 2003, Bruce Janes was a member of the first ever frontline Kiwi wildfire crew in Australia. On Wednesday he flies back to head a new team battling the worst blazes in the country's history.
The week the haze from Australia's bush fires swallowed summer, Bruce Janes went hunting. He came home, prepared his kill for the freezer, washed his car and looked at the sky.
"We're right against the Southern Alps and the entire sky is red. That's 2500 kilometres from the fire. What does that tell you? And you can smell the smoke from 2500 kilometres. Like . . . Wow."
Tomorrow, Janes will leave his home in Loburn, North Canterbury and fly to Sydney - to a country that is catastrophically on fire.
The 58-year-old will lead a 20-strong kiwi contingent of frontline firefighters with specilist expertise in burnout operations. One of their jobs: Rob the raging fire fronts of new fuel.
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"The thing that's sticking in my mind is those firefighters who were killed. They went in to do asset protection, and on the way out . . . they obviously drove through trees that were unburnt . . . and those trees stopped them getting out.
"That's really big on my mind. We go in to do the good work and you're doing a good thing, maybe helping with an evacuation and maybe you ignore the fact you just drove through some trees that may trap you. That particular scene is sticking with me.
"I don't want our guys going anywhere near that one way ticket."
At the time of this interview, bushfires spreading across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia had killed 23 people. The death toll included three firefighters, two of whom were killed when the truck they were travelling in hit a tree and rolled.
Meanwhile, more than 1500 homes had been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were affected by emergency evacuation orders. A reported half a billion animals had been killed. On Twitter, Melbourne residents were being asked to donate old cotton sheets to an organisation sewing mittens for burned koala bears and pouches for orphaned joey kangaroos. And in Loburn, Bruce Janes was mentally preparing.
"I'll spend more time on my own," he said. "I'll go for lots of walks on my own, for fitness and just preparing myself mentally. It's focusing. Focusing in on the task. You've got to be professional, you're representing the country, representing Fire and Emergency New Zealand and, critically, lives are in your hands."
It's 17 years since I last spoke to Janes. Today, he works fulltime as North Canterbury's Principal Rural Fire Officer. This week's deployment will focus on the fire effort in New South Wales, but in 2003, he was the team supervisor for a contingent of 10 kiwi firefighters deployed to East Gippsland, Victoria.
"We were the first ever wildfire crews to travel. Incident management teams had travelled previously, but not crews, not ordinary firefighters. We were the probing mission. We were very much told to do well, so that others may follow."
Back then, I was a reporter with the Sunday Star-Times. We spent five days with the team that was dubbed "Kiwi 1", camping alongside Janes and his colleagues in a tent city in an Australian Rules football field where they kept the floodlights on during the day so we could see. The surrounding hillsides were burned brown and black. At night they came alive - starlight at ground level as the tree stumps twinkled with embers.
"There's ash in your tent, ash in your sleeping bag, ash in your lunch," Janes told me then. "The fitness you require is half to be able to handle the work, but half is about handling the heat and stress."
I remember trudging uphill in boots, overalls, gloves, helmets and goggles. We were told that if anything happened, we should get on the road, lie down with our feet towards the fire and cover our heads with our hands. At one point, I gasped for breath and realised I'd sucked in a fly. It was smoky and the heat was burtally dry. I swallowed, because it was too much effort to spit it out. Later, we interviewed a 73-year-old standing in the blackened remains of his homestead. His walking stick was charred, his home reduced to two chimneys and a twist of corrugated iron, but he was prepared to rebuild - just as his father had after the 1939 fires that killed 47 people.
On the last day of that story, we drove to where the sky was still blue. The New Zealand crew was on a rest break. They caught prawns, played rugby, swam and someone said maybe the only thing that would stop these fires was the ocean. I ask Janes if he remembers that day in Mallacoota.
"Absolutely," he says grimly. Because this summer, Mallacoota is a hellscape. It's where trapped holidaymakers are being evacuated by the thousands, and where Allison Marion took the now iconic photograph of her 11-year-old son steering a boat to safety through a blood red haze.
"The two extremes," says Janes. "2003, firefighters having a good rest day on the beach and all is well. 2019-20? Hmmm. The fire's on the beach . . . that's the big blue fire break."
Tomorrow's deployment will be Janes' 10th international stint (and seventh in Australia) since 2003. The work, he says, is addictive. Is it the new normal?
"Hell, we're only just back from California and they were like 'this is the worst we've ever seen'. It just keeps getting worse."
Since October, 157 New Zealanders have crossed the Tasman to assist with the fire response. Headlines declare "Apocalypse Now", "Terror Coast" and "Australia Ablaze".
"It's apocalyptic alright," says Janes. "To give it perspective, three million hectares burned, well that's three Fiordland National Parks. So that's massive. That's just unbelievably massive. And then all the deaths and all of the homes . . .
"A normal deployment to Australia would be go to there, do the firefighting, come home. But this one? Nah. Nah. You've got all that drama, all that social pressure, political pressure, the fact that we've lost firefighters and civilians and homes.
"Couple that with what we're seeing via the media with the fire behaviour. You're seeing gaseous flame 20 metres above trees, flame generated simply by gas leaving the plants, and that is just unbelievable fire behaviour. So that really makes you crap yourself, because you can get into trouble so quickly. It's so explosive.
"I'm very aware of the scale of this. The danger of this. Very aware."
Tim Mitchell, FENZ Rural Fire Manager, said the new deployment would work two five day shifts and return to New Zealand on January 20. The crew was made up of personnel from across the country and, while it would be based in New South Wales, exactly whereabouts would depend on the rapidly changing situation.