A helitack can draw 350 gallons of water into a tank and dump it on a bushfire. It can also dump the same amount of raw sewage on a team of 29 firefighters as they battle a blaze some 19 miles south of Port Macquarie on Australia’s east coast. The operation can then be repeated for three hours until everyone on the ground gets a good taste and two of the boys have to go to the hospital. This isn’t some weird hypothetical, it happened last Tuesday. To get the details, I caught up with a firefighter who was there. He wanted his name kept under wraps because he’s been getting enough shit from his friends already.
VICE: How are you feeling?
Fireman: Pissed off. I mean, we got cleaned up, but I still can’t believe it happened.
Can you describe the situation?
Yeah, we got a call that there was a fire burning out near Kew, just off the Pacific Highway. The crew got there just after 6:30 AM. It wasn’t a big fire, but it was dropping spot fires along the highway and that was obviously a problem for traffic. We started getting a fire line together while they brought in two mid-size helicopters to do water dumps on the actual front.
And when did you notice they weren’t dumping water?
Well I didn’t notice anything. I was fighting a fire and that kept me occupied, but some of the other guys said the water was all discoloured and it had a real smelly back-spray. Then around 10 AM—which was three and half hours later, by the way—a council engineer called the commanders and said they’d been pumping water from the wrong pond. They thought they were using treated water but it was raw sewage.
How did they get the ponds mixed up?
I don’t know. The idea is that they pump water from the nearest source, and in this case it was a sewage treatment plant. Apparently someone said that the pond was secondary water and it was safe, but it wasn’t. It was just a mistake is what I heard.
Did you get hit?
Oh yeah, all over. You know, you’re working under the helicopters as they come over and they don’t have pinpoint accuracy. Every time they do a drop you get all this mist that blows everywhere. Plus you’re out there working, you’re not covering up and it gets all in your eyes and mouth, all up your nose. It’s fucked.
So what was the reaction among the crew when you guys found out it was sewage?
We thought it was kind of funny. Or at least I did. But then they sent in the paramedics and they explained the health risks, like you can get Hep A and everyone was like fuck that. We had to wash in this chemical stuff and wear biohazard suits, and by then everyone was pissed off at being placed so unnecessarily at risk. One of the guys called the workers union and now they’re helping us settle it. We just work too hard for this kind of shit. And that’s not even a pun.
Haha, no, I guess not.
Yeah, not when two of the guys were taken up to Port Macquarie hospital because they had open cuts that could have gotten infected. I’m not a doctor, but I know raw sewage in an open cut is bad news. The rest of us were just instructed to visit our doctors if we got sick.
Did you get sick?
No, thankfully. I got home and had a really, really long shower and told my girlfriend about it. She was just as pissed off as we were. None of us got sick though... at least to my knowledge.
And what did your friends say about it?
Most of them have been good. A few of them thought it was funny. I’ve got one buddy who thought it was really funny, but he’s nearly 30 and works at KFC.
So you still view some jobs as being worse?
Oh yeah, fighting fires is usually great. This was a low point though.
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