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Port Hills fire: The woman firefighter making a difference on the ground

'I think it’s really good for young girls to see a woman in a typically male role and realise that women can do something like this.'

Seven-year-old Mila tries on Veronika’s helmet.

Veronika Frank is a firefighter with the Canterbury High Country Volunteer Firefighters. She was on the front line during the recent Port Hills fire.

"The Canterbury High Country Volunteer Firefighters is a bit like boy scouts for grown-ups. I was actually away on holidays when the fire started on that Monday so I saw it on the news and felt frustrated that I was up in the North Island.

My partner called to say there was ash falling around our house, which is at the bottom of the hills. I got back on the Thursday night, hit the ground running on Friday morning and haven’t stopped since.

In those first few days, it was really the helicopters that managed to save the houses. Many experienced firefighters said they’d never seen fire spread that quickly or intensely.

When I got involved, the stage when there are large advancing flames had already passed. Instead, we got into the areas that had been burnt and put out anything that was still smouldering before digging up the hot spots.

Most people don’t know that once flames get into tree roots and big piles of rubbish, they act like an underground oven. Flames smouldering under the ground can pop up weeks or even months later!

Like everyone, I’ve seen pictures on the news of the remnants of burned houses with nothing salvageable – just utter mess and ruins. It’s quite emotional actually.

Being up in the hills, you can see so many houses that the flames are within metres of, or with blackened walls, that were only saved by the helicopters and monsoon buckets.

It’s important for Veronika to find hot spots.
It’s important for Veronika to find hot spots.

Both my partner and I joined the crew last year, and this is my third fire. We were part of the State Emergency Service when we lived in Australia.

It’s wonderful to be able to do something, and not watch and feel helpless – that gives you energy and motivation.

You need both of those because the days are long – typically about 14 or 15 hours. I’m reasonably physically fit but having said that, my day job is an office job so my hands, arms and back and shoulders are not used to it.

I think it’s really good for young girls to see a woman in a typically male role and realise that women can do something like this.

After a shift, I went round to a friend’s house to see her and her young girls. My face was covered in ash and I felt pretty disgusting, but it was good for them to see me like that and to send a message to them about different role models. People have said to me, ‘Don’t you have to be big and strong?’

But you just need to be able to tramp and observe – those are the most important things. We still expect to be on this fire for about four weeks – there must be at least 100 firefighters
on the ground still. It’s a big operation.”

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