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Tasmanians pitch in at recent NSW fire

PARKS and Wildlife Service’s Anthony Timmerman joined Tasmania Fire Service and Forestry Tasmania colleagues to help the recent New South Wales firefighting effort.

We caught up with Anthony, who’s a bit of a character, on a sunny day at Bakers Beach in Narawntapu National and he explained his role in the NSW fires where he worked two back-to-back shifts. “It’s beautiful up here; there are actually people swimming out here today; I can’t believe they pay me to come here and work,” he said with a laugh.

Anthony’s the Ranger in Charge at the Mersey Field Centre, where started as a Field Officer 12 years ago. At the park Anthony works with another ranger, a field officer and two others at the Visitor Centre.

“I went over with a team made up of Parks, the Tasmania Fire Service and Forestry to respond to a request for remote area fire fighters. We worked a five day shift: 16 hours on the first day and then four 12 hour days. Then we had a day off, before doing a second shift of the same and then another two days off. You keep going like that for however long the fire goes for.

It was a huge blaze, 51,000 hectares.  Anthony and the rest of the team were working on the State Mine Fire that was managed by an incident management team working out of Lithgow.  Some members of this team were also from Tassie.

At times on the fire front  there can be a lot of waiting, watching and assessing.

“Typically most bushfires will start in the afternoon when the day’s at its hottest. Then we’ll throw whatever resources available we can at it as soon as possible to knock it over.  You could spend a 12 hour shift running ‘round like a blue-arsed fly or you could spend hours sitting around and assessing. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you’ve got a running fire going well though vegetation, we may not be able to go in and fight it directly as it may be too dangerous. We might sit back and wait a while to see what the fire does. You’ve really got to study the topography of the land, what the weather’s doing, the age and type of fuel, there are a whole lot of factors that determine what sort of attack you’ll make to suppress a fire.”

Anthony’s been doing remote work for the last 12 years.

There are two levels of field based fire fighter in the PWS: moderate and arduous. Moderate is basically vehicle based fire fighting where fire fighter access is not an issue, and arduous is where you’re helicoptered in if you’re lucky or you face a long walk.

“That’s where we take in camping gear in case we can’t get flown out we also take in tools like portable pumps and hand tools such as chainsaws, rakehoes, pulaski’s and the like.

It’s very physical work that requires an annual fitness test where a doctor determines if you’re suited to arduous or moderate.

“It’s kind of funny, everyone thinks that fire fighters point wet stuff at the red stuff, and a lot of it is that, especially if assets or infrastructure are under threat but a lot of the remote fire fighting is establishing handlines and back burning.

“Even though I was in NSW for two weeks firefighting I didn’t touch a hose once. We established handlines in remote locations, which are 1-1.5 metres wide and raked back to mineral earth.

“We use chainsaws for the majority of the heavy fuel, and then it’s either brush cutters or raking the leaf litter off the ground. In the Blue Mountains National Park we also used leaf blowers. These were the backpack ones, which were fantastic to get all the finer fuels off the hand lines before back burning. When we’re not doing that we were working with helicopters using bambi buckets.

“An aircraft flies over the fire ground with an infrared camera that plots all the hotspots that are left, whether it’s logs, stumps or if the fire’s burnt underground. This will then be GPS plotted and mapped and we’ll get flown in then find those hotspots, dig them up or cut them up with chainsaws. Then with the helicopters we’ll coordinate them in so they dump water on these spots. It’s hard work but it’s also good fun!

“Finding hotspots just comes through experience. It’s just a matter of using your nose, I know that sounds weird but you can smell a hot spot or if it’s an underground hotspot, you put your hand near it and if you can feel heat, you know you’ve found one.

Working well and getting along with others is essential in remote area fire fighting. “We stay together as a team with the Forestry and TFS fellows. It doesn’t matter what uniform you wear when we’re fighting fires, we all just work together. All three agencies have got valuable skills and we just walk in and do the job basically.”

“There were about a dozen of us in the Tasmanian team at first, then a few went back and a few more came over. New South Wales wanted experienced remote area firefighters who had worked with helicopters.  When you’re cutting down a tree that’s on fire, you definitely need to know what you’re doing and the tree fallers are good at they’re job”.

The Blue Mountains National Park is much steeper country than some remote parts of Tasmania; Anthony describing it as rugged gorge country. “It might be a 10-15 minute helicopter flight in but it’d be a month walk to get out. The Blue Mountains National Park doesn’t have any roads.   

“Water was an issue for that fire. Even though we’ve got remote spots in Tassie, we can usually get water fairly easily by setting up a portable pump and running hoses from a creek or tarn.  In the Blue Mountains it was different because although there were a lot of creeks and rivers, you’ll usually find them at the bottom of a 50 foot gorge. So it’s very difficult to establish pumps and lay hoses so it’s mainly helicopter work.

It’s not his first deployment, working at the Black Saturday Fires in Victoria back in 2009, and knowing how to work well in small groups and being able to adapt and overcome are key qualities.

“At the end of the day you might be put up in a hotel or you might have to sleep on the fire ground in a sleeping bag, if a helicopter can’t pick you up – that’s it, you’re sleeping out in the dirt. In New South Wales for the second shift we were put up in an army barracks, which was fine. As long as you can grab a cold drink at the end of the day, it’s all good.”

Back at home last season Anthony fought the Poatina fires, before dislocating his shoulder.  “I was called back to work to take on extra Regional Fire Duty Officer roles because everyone else was busy”.

PWS is currentlydoing a few fuel reduction burns around the state, “That really gives you an idea of how wet things are in Tassie! However vegetation does dry out very, very quickly at this time of the year so we just prepare ourselves. You’ve got to make sure all your equipment’s right to go. Basically any time of the day the phone could ring when you’re on availability with the Duty Officer saying “you’ve got to go and fight a fire….somewhere”.

As well as that we’re preparing for the busy camping season here at Narawntapu that’s about to be upon us, with the long weekend for the Devonport Show this weekend up here.”

The CPSU is very proud of Anthony and others from the Parks and Wildlife Service, Forestry Tasmania and the Tasmania Fire Service who worked in the recent New South Wales fires and for the work they do in our own state.

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