Two firefighters from the Te Horo Voluntary Rural Fire Force were among many Fire and Emergency New Zealand firefighters who have helped tackle the devastating Australia bushfires.

Chief fire officer Bryan Sutton and deputy chief fire officer Steve Borrell each spent two weeks combating the fires in Queensland and New South Wales respectively.

Bryan's deployment saw him directly battling fires in Noosa Heads and then Woodgate in Bundaberg before going to a place called Boonah to help manage a large fire.

Television images didn't portray what the fires were like in real life, he said.

Advertisement

"You don't have the sound of the fire, the smell of the smoke, when those fires go through it just turns day to night - it's incredible.

"We will never see fire intensity like that in New Zealand."

The Noosa Heads fire wasn't too big, about 6000ha, and was contained by a river and the coast.

"So it was only burning on two fronts."

A break during Noosa Heads fire fighting. In yellow are Maroochy River Rural Fire Brigade. In blue are some of the New Zealand team.
A break during Noosa Heads fire fighting. In yellow are Maroochy River Rural Fire Brigade. In blue are some of the New Zealand team.

The Bundaberg fire in Woodgate was about 16,000ha.

"If you can liken it to the Himatangi Straights [north of Levin] but covered in bush.

"Woodgate was like a coastal town probably the size of Foxton Beach and it was just dead flat.

"And you get the wind like along the Himatangi Straights and it just whips straight through it."

Advertisement

Boonah was the largest fire covering about 24,000ha.

"It was a national park so it was like our Tararuas, very hilly.

"It had been burning for a month and was called a campaign fire where they had an area, like the Horowhenua AP&I Showgrounds set up in tents, fire trucks, catering.

"It was a more military style set up.

"Their main firefighting tool is a bulldozer and back burning.

"They don't tend to fight the fire unless it's threatening them, or jumps a containment line, or obviously threatening towns or structures.

Advertisement

"So that fire was more a management type fire with back burning at night and them monitoring at day those back burns to make sure the wind hadn't turned and the fire fled and threatened containment lines.

"Basically they get a bulldozer and push a line around the outside and if it breaks that containment line they go about 5km and push another line around, and keep doing that."

Steve helped tackle the Casino and Benelno fires which were about two hours south of Brisbane.

He was part of a night shift mostly protecting property and back burning as well as addressing areas the day crews were having trouble with.

Steve Borrell on night shift.
Steve Borrell on night shift.

It was gruelling busy work involving long 14 to 16-hour days and about five hours sleep during the day.

"By the end of your first week you were really tired."

Advertisement

The fires were "so fast, so unpredictable, and just everywhere.

"The size of the fires were just overwhelming to be honest."

Firefighters were working in vast areas too.

Steve Borrell, right, with colleagues.
Steve Borrell, right, with colleagues.

"It's just so big and everyone is so stretched.

"To format a perfect plan is impossible.

"Sometimes we would have a 100km perimeter to patrol so the trucks would be spread out all over the place.

Advertisement

"And the comms in Australia are nothing like New Zealand where we're really good on our radios.

"Over there were very few radios I guess because they're so stretched.

"We could be 20km to 30km away from the nearest truck with no radio to be able to get back to them.

"And confronted with situations where you needed a bit of back up."

Steve Borrell keeps a close watch on fires.
Steve Borrell keeps a close watch on fires.

There were a few memorable moments.

"We were protecting some properties, with two sets of trucks, and the wind changed and suddenly we were getting covered in ash.

Advertisement

"At night it looked like it was snowing.

"And you realised the wind had changed and the fire was coming back at us.

"This orange orb just got closer and closer and we were really starting to think 'holy hell we're up against it' and the wind changed again and it turned away.

"Another time we were working away and one of the locals started back burning, who they weren't meant to, and didn't realise there were crews working in the bush further on and it made life hard to get out of there."

The overall experience was "a huge eye-opener".