Rotorua firefighter given 'rare and special honour' for fighting bushfires in Australia

By Tamara Poi-Ngawhika

Phil Muldoon on the fire ground in Jinden Australia. Photo / Supplied

A Rotorua firefighter who worked 16-hour days battling Australian bush fires has been given a “rare and special honour” by the Australian Government.

Phil Muldoon, chief rural fire officer for Lake Ōkāreka was one of 53 firefighters honoured for helping battle the Australian bush fires in the summer of 2019/20.

Muldoon has been awarded the Australia National Emergency Medal, and said it was very humbling as he did not do the job for the accolades.

“It’s not what we do it for but it is nice to be recognised, especially from the Australian Government,” Muldoon said.

Muldoon said fighting the bush fires was his 16th deployment. The award is the first time he had been recognised in such a way.

Muldoon said he had two weeks to prepare when he was chosen after Australia put out the call for help. As the role is voluntary, firefighters opt in and are selected based on their skill set.

“We went to help their firefighters in Australia who had a tough season. We’re fresh feet on the ground and give them a break,” Muldoon said.

Muldoon said the New Zealand contingent brought the Kiwi “can-do attitude” and was well trained. This put them in good stead to sustain 16-hour days for their two-week deployment.

Muldoon described his time in Australia as “very physically demanding work.” He said they slept in a tent in “very, very tough conditions”.

One notable memory of his time in Australia was when Muldoon’s team were allocated to a fire and had to save a house in the middle of the bush.

“Locals are given the option to fight or flee. People had left this house and gone somewhere safe, then we came in and were tasked with defending this house.”

Muldoon said the fire front had gone through and burned within 2m of the property. He said the team prevented it from burning and revisited the site numerous times over the days to stop it from reigniting.

“To see the end result and know the house is still standing untouched, is the best thing.

“We never ever knew whose house it was but that’s the satisfaction of a job well done,” Muldoon said.

Muldoon has been a firefighter for about 25 years and was keen to see more young people join the career. He said applicants “certainly need to be fit”.

“If young people are keen on joining, go for it. It’s an awesome experience. You work with crews and are part of a team,” Muldoon said.

“I get satisfaction from seeing young people join our ranks. It opens another door to a possible career and life. The enjoyment and camaraderie is brilliant.”

Muldoon gets a “kick” out of helping the community.

“Our number one priority is to protect and serve our community and this extends into deployments both nationally and internationally.”

FENZ national commander Russell Wood said this acknowledgement had never been awarded to anyone from the organisation before.

“This is a rare and special honour that the Australian Government has extended to us,” Wood said.

Wood said New Zealand and Australia shared a special closeness and would “do everything we can do” to support each other through extreme adversity.

“The bush fires in Australia in 2019/20 were catastrophic and we were glad we could be there to help them.

“I am immensely proud of our people, who responded to the call so selflessly and put their time and energy into fighting one of the biggest wild fire disasters of our time.

“It was a dangerous environment for everyone to be in, and they showed true Kiwi spirit in their sustained efforts under challenging conditions.

“As a nation, we are very proud of our fine firefighters,” Wood said.

Among the 53 firefighters honoured, 38 are from FENZ, two are from the NZ Army, eight from NZ Air Force, two from the Department of Conservation and three from forestry company partners.

Public Interest Journalism, funded through NZ On Air