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‘It’s a hellscape,’ says New Zealander after working on fire lines in Australia

by Rachel Das, New Zealand Herald (Auckland) |

A student from New Zealand's Canterbury University, taking on an Australian summer job, got more than he bargained for, helping to fight the bush fires raging across Australia.

Forestry student Fergus Simpson took on a three-month forestry experience job for the Forestry Corporation in New South Wales, landing in the thick of fires in a town called Tumut.

He said he had never previously fought fires and had no idea he was signing up for the worst fire season on record, working 24-hour shifts.

"Without sounding cliché, it really is like Armageddon,” he said.

He described working with a few tankers, garden hoses and sprinklers versus 50m of flame rushing at high speed toward you.

"Even people who've been fighting fires here for 30, 40, 50 years say they've never seen conditions like this,” he said. ”It’s just a hellscape. It’s unbelievable.”

He was recently with crews trying to protect a farm house, which was surrounded by 20 feet of flame topping 90-foot-high blazing pine trees.

"You just have this kind of inferno rushing at you. The heat is just unbelievable. It’s immense. I can't even put it into words,” he said. "You've just got fire literally blowing across you, with these huge winds and embers blowing everywhere.”

Simpson said the crew he was with pulled out when it became too dangerous. But there was good news in store – on their return, the fire crew found the house they had been fighting to protect still standing.

Having lived through the Canterbury earthquakes, Simpson likened Australia's fire-stricken communities to Christchurch.

He said it was remarkable to see the way everyone was coming together to help each other out.

"But then at the same time, there's just this air of nervousness and everyone's a wee bit scared just because it could be them next,” he said. "It's a really weird, weird feeling ... takes me back a bit."

Simpson will stay on the ground for another month, returning to Christchurch the day before the university semester starts.

But it may not be the last he's seen of fighting fires. Simpson said he's considering becoming a voluntary rural firefighter once he's back home in New Zealand.