Whanganui firefighters Gavin Pryce and Andy Simons are back to their day jobs after a gruelling five weeks fighting wildfires in Canada.

Pryce, Fire and Emergency Whanganui's deputy principal Rural Fire officer, and Simons, a volunteer firefighter who owns a plumbing and gasfitting business, were part of the New Zealand contingent of 65 deployed to help in British Columbia's biggest-ever fire season.

Pryce and Simons were based in the southeast area of British Columbia, below the Rocky Mountains. They spent the first few weeks in Revelstoke, a ski resort town, then moved south to the small town of Kimberley where they spent two weeks fighting just one fire.

"The town was under an evacuation alert at the time," Pryce said.

Advertisement

"The fire was 10,000ha. It was huge. We would be thinking we were making some headway and then reports would come in from helicopters flying over the zone that more fires were starting. One day 90 new fires started in our zone.

"Even when we left, it was still classified as out of control."

The temperature was about 36 degrees at the start of the deployment and the work was physically challenging.

"We were in the mountains so the hills were big," Simons said.

"They were long days and physically tiring, traipsing up hills and dragging hoses. We were working 14 days on and two days off. The physical demands was a big thing. I thought we were fit but the Canadian firefighters were young crews. If you were 30, you were considered old. They are mountain fit as well."

In Revelstoke, they were the first responders to many of the fires.

"Nearly all of the fires were started by dry lightning, so lightning strikes where there was no rain," Pryce said.

"There was really low humidity which is when fire behaviour kicks up and firefighting becomes difficult."

Despite the physical and mental challenges of fighting wildfires in Canada, Andy Simons (left) and Gavin Pryce are keen for more overseas deployments.
Despite the physical and mental challenges of fighting wildfires in Canada, Andy Simons (left) and Gavin Pryce are keen for more overseas deployments.

The days were long, starting with a 7am briefing and finishing at 8pm or sometimes later.

"We would drive a couple of hours in the morning, get to a staging area and either be flown in by helicopter or hike in for maybe an hour-and-a-half, carrying all our gear," Pryce said.

The Kiwi firefighters were surprised to be issued with spray to repel bears. They also carried whistles to scare bears and alert other personnel to bears in the area. While Pryce and Simons did not directly encounter any bears, they just missed one that wandered across the road at a police checkpoint and another with cubs in an area they were hiking to.

Pryce said he learned a lot from the experience.

"We used some different equipment that we found very good and effective to deal with a fire, using very little water.

"The biggest thing was health and safety. We do it well here but the safety of their firefighters comes before anything else and it was really obvious. The biggest risk was falling trees so experts would go in and identify dangerous trees and have them removed before we got in and started dealing with the fire."

The firefighters were amazed at the support they received from local fire crews, police, the mayor and community in Kimberley.

"We almost felt like heroes - that's how we were treated and it was very humbling," Pryce said.

"We were well looked after, respected and thanked. The people couldn't get over how far we had come to help their little town."

People would approach them to say thank you and push in front of them in coffee queues to pay for their coffee.

Simons and Pryce are keen for more overseas deployments.

"You learn so much about yourself as much as anything and how other people do things around the world and what you can bring back to your home country," Pryce said.