Whakatane men heroes in Nelson

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DEDICATION: The Pumicelands crew with the “Zulu” sector of the fire in the background. From left: Ray Dunbar, Stu Lyall, Manita Grant, Roy Toia, Mark Cleghorn and Troy Ruane. Not pictured Ryan Packer. Photos supplied

WHAKATANE rural firefighter Mark Cleghorn has spent about a week fighting the biggest fire he’s experienced in New Zealand.

He, along with Animal Evac New Zealand volunteer Corey Jones joined emergency response crews from across the country protecting people, animals and property from the Nelson bush fires, which have burned for nearly a month.

Mr Cleghorn travelled to Nelson with a crew of six other firefighters from the Pumicelands region, which encompasses the central North Island.

The situation was nothing new to Mr Cleghorn who has been on international deployment to bush fires in Tasmania and national deployment to a bush fire in Gisborne previously.

“[While] this was the largest I have been to in New Zealand, it was nowhere near as large or intense as the ones overseas,” Mr Cleghorn said.

“By the time our rotation got to Nelson we were kinda into mopping up hot spots. The main fire had been contained so they had a perimeter around it, and we were going in and dealing to the hot spots.”

The crew worked 12-hour days as they did their bit to help extinguish the flames.

“I really enjoyed being able to help, especially in New Zealand, I’ve been over to help people in Australia but to help people in New Zealand who needed it was fantastic,” Mr Cleghorn said.

“Getting down there and seeing people in Nelson and Richmond, if they recognised you were a firefighter, they were just so happy and grateful for you to be there and to be helping them back into their homes. It’s been a big thing for them and just to see the looks on their faces when they realised you were down there to get this thing out so they could return to their homes. That was really rewarding.”

Mr Cleghorn said the Nelson fires were an unusual experience in New Zealand as often bush fires don’t reach that size or result in people needing to be evacuated on such a large scale.

While he hopes it is a one-off experience, Mr Cleghorn said it was a good opportunity to put the skills he had learnt into use.

“Some seasons we don’t get many fires, even though you’re training all the time your skills do get rusty,” Mr Cleghorn said.

“Being able to go to something like this and use what you’ve been trained in and what you’ve learned that’s really rewarding as well. All those hours of training we put in makes it worthwhile.”

While Mr Cleghorn was working to put the fire out, Mr Jones, also a rural firefighter, was working to move animals away from the fire perimeter.

He said the first day they were allowed past the cordon they mostly spent time evacuating livestock such as horses, sheep and chickens from lifestyle blocks in the area.

The team also distributed pet carriers donated by Boehringer Ingelheim to pet owners who needed them at welfare centres. They took details of where pets were so people could check on their welfare and the team also helped to care for the animals at the animal refuge centre.

EVACUATED: Animal Evac New Zealand volunteer Corey Jones with a rescued chicken and dog.

Previously, Mr Jones had experience rescuing animals during the Edgecumbe Floods with the Whakatane Emergency Response Team.

“During Edgecumbe, as we were trained with swift water; we were right in there rescuing the animals,” Mr Jones said.

“This time, with animal evac, we weren’t allowed to go on the fire ground itself. Animal evac focuses more on helping people to evacuate their animals before the disaster happens. There’s a lot of people during disasters who will do anything for their pets; in fact, during Edgecumbe we had people breaking cordons to go back for their animals. In cases overseas when there has been a big disaster people refused to evacuate as they didn’t want to leave their animals behind, which put their lives at risk. So, this helps get the people out of harm’s way too.”

Before AENZ and the Wellington SPCA National Rescue Unit arrived in Nelson, 80 sheep had already been euthanised due to severe burns. The animal evac team has since helped to rescue over 900 animals.

“I just love helping the community and helping people look after their pets during times of stress,” Mr Jones said.

“Seeing how upset people were was the hardest thing. It’s sad to see people not allowed in their homes, especially when they don’t know when they will be allowed to go back, so there were some quite stressed people.”

A specially rewarding experience for Mr Jones was the gratitude of one man whose tropical fish the team helped care for until he was allowed back into his home.

“He was in tears, he was quite distressed, he was worried the power might have gone out,” Mr Jones said.

“He came back and thanked us, he was so rapt that everything was fine.

“It was amazing.”