Meet our firefighting MacGyvers

The first Lower North Coast RAFT
The first Lower North Coast RAFT

One of the biggest impediments for firefighting crews in our region is rugged, inaccessible terrain.

Steep and rocky ridges, limited sources of water, dense vegetation, and often overgrown firetrails can prevent our RFS and National Parks and Wildlife crews and tankers from fighting bushfires closer to their source.

Remote Area Firefighting Teams (RAFT) - specialist crews who work with dry-earth firefighting techniques in these seemingly impenetrable places - have been around for a while ... just not here.

But last September the RFS Lower North Coast quietly welcomed its first crew of 11 RAFT firefighters.

Their weapons of choice: axes, rakehoes, chainsaws and three types of radios.

Their mode of transport: 4WD with custom-built trailer, or a helicopter which will sometimes winch them into locations humans have likely never set foot in before.

Their MO: be ready at a moment's notice for a seven-day deployment, walking dozens of kilometres up mountainsides and with a 20kg pack on their backs, while manually creating firebreaks, helicopter landing pads, and mopping up smouldering landscapes.

The idea to form a RAFT in our area was floated a while ago. But all personnel must meet strict medical, physical and competency standards before their first deployment.

For nearly a year, our RAFT 11 were levelling up through a range of theoretical and practical exams, including an 'Arduous Pack Test' which requires participants to walk 4.83km with a 20.4kg pack on in under 45 minutes.

Remote Area Firefighting Teams (RAFTs) are expected to participate in fieldwork requiring above-average endurance and superior conditioning. Their work can include occasional demands for extraordinarily strenuous activities in emergencies under adverse environmental conditions and over extended periods.

RFS operations manual

RAFT hopefuls also undertook an Operate in Remote Environments (ORE) course which saw them being dropped off in remote bushland at night and challenged them to navigate back with compasses.

Each crew member spent a weekend at the Armidale Aerodrome training facility learning basic aviation knowledge and also how to winch themselves to the ground from a hovering helicopter.

They also all received radio training - one of the main duties of RAFT crewpersons is to precision-guide an aerial water drop.

And at least one guy in each four-person crew has to have untertaken a remote area first aid course, which allows them to sustain life when help is hours away.

"So we have a fair bit of experience in our team - we've got captains, deputy captains, group captains, and a really wide range of skills," Group Captain Graeme Adair said.

Graeme said his first deployment was a baptism of fire - if you'll excuse the pun. On September 22 he was completing his winch training at Armidale. Not even 12 hours later, he was being deployed at the Barrington Tops.

He's since been on three other volunteer missions. RAFT member Mark Farnsworth has also clocked up four missions as part of the new team.

Others have made it a cool half dozen ... in less than five months.

And the perils are plentiful on each: 'widow-maker' trees, black snakes, goannas and wild dogs, vertical terrain, heat exhaustion, and rotor wash from helicopter blades, which Kai Haase said can bring down the tree branches you were least expecting to fall.

"You're constantly looking up and getting a sore neck all day," he said.

The HIT training facility in Armidale. Our team was the first to try the new facility out

The HIT training facility in Armidale. Our team was the first to try the new facility out

When it's all spelled out like this, it makes one wonder why anyone would sign up.

But Graeme, Mark and Kai are exuberant in their enthusiasm for the job.

"I'm pretty passionate about it because it helps people," Mark said.

"Sometimes we have to sit and wait for the fires to come out of the bush - this gives us a chance to get them sooner and make a real difference."

Graeme said he only wished he'd have trained up 10 years ago.

"I do it for the physical challenge," he said. "Being a Group Captain you don't often get a chance to fight the fire. But with RAFT I can get back onto the tools and get back into it."

With so much talent on the team, the crews operate a little differently to brigades.

"There's no leader," Graeme said. "We're all on guard for each other."

"After all, the 'T' in RAFT is team."

Kai, too, said he does it for the variety it provides.

Plus it's great to work with like-minded, passionate firefighters who are in it because they like what they do.

Kai Haase

"And then there's the 'free' helicopter rides."

Graeme said they're looking to grow the team and hopes there are other firies out there equal to the challenge.

Anyone who has completed their Advanced Firefighter's Course is eligible to start their training to join the team. Simply talk to your brigade's Training Officer.

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