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Firefighting: Botswana style

Date

Christopher Knaus

Herds of rhinos and elephants are just some of the challenges faced by Botswana firefighters.

Herds of rhinos and elephants are just some of the challenges faced by Botswana firefighters. Photo: Supplied

It's a terribly risky business fighting fire in the African savannas of Botswana.

And Canberra-based fire officer Rick Davies is perhaps understating the array of dangers - dodging herds of fleeing rhinos and elephants while using crude spades to fight vast walls of fast-moving flame devouring grass as high as your head – when he describes them as professional "challenges".

The ACT Parks and City Services trainer, and volunteer firefighter of 30 years, will soon fly to the land-locked nation to use his expertise to help develop the country's fire service.

ACT Parks and City Services trainer officer Rick Davies is heading to Botswana to help train the country's fire fighters.

ACT Parks and City Services trainer officer Rick Davies is heading to Botswana to help train the country's fire fighters. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

"It's similar country to Australia... but you've got higher grass, you've got wildlife coming out that we don't have here, like elephants and rhinos charging along the ground, so there are some challenges," Mr Davies said.

"Here we get the occasional wild pigs or foxes, and things coming out, snakes, spiders, you get that wherever you are... just not huge bulk animals," he said.

He is working on a NSW Rural Fire Service project, jointly funded by AusAID and the Republic of Botswana, which has already greatly improved the country's ability to fight destructive wildfires.

Equipment used by Botswana firefighters before Australian help.

Equipment used by Botswana firefighters before Australian help. Photo: Supplied

Botswana regularly sees vast fires, which in the 2010 dry season burnt through a staggering 31.1 million hectares, killing 12.

That compares to an area of 450,000 hectares during the 2009 Victorian bushfires, or one of NSW's largest ever spread of fires in 1994, where 800 fires affected 800,000 hectares.

They are fuelled by grass reaching 8ft, cured quickly during the hot conditions of the dry season.

Equipment used by Botswana firefighters.

Equipment used by Botswana firefighters. Photo: Supplied

Water is scarce, with the Kalahari Desert covering roughly three quarters of the country, and firefighting equipment was, until recently, limited to makeshift spades and small portable loads of water carried on trailers.

The wildfires can have a drastic impact on tourism, which is the developing economy's second biggest industry.

The sheer scale of the fires often results in damage to much of the country's savvanas, impacting on the habitats and wildlife that bring safari and adventure-seeking tourists.

Australia has been helping develop the country's fire service for the past three years, equipping firefighters with basic gear and skills.

Australian experts, including Mr Davies, will help with the next stage of the project, focussed on improving firefighting strategies and building leadership capacity over the next two years.

NSW Rural Fire Service executive support group manager Russell Taylor said the project had already seen a significant decrease in the number and severity of fires.

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