It’s a rainy Thursday morning and a team of firemen are waiting at Tonypandy fire station.
Craig Hope, Dean Evans, Ross Hughes and Chris Deacon, all from the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, have recently returned from Greece where they spent eight days helping to battle the raging wild fires that teared through the Greek mountains.
You’d never guess the devastation they’ve witnessed as you walk towards them. They’re all smiling, they all say “good morning” and ask how I am, and each of them is eager to teach me something about their specialist equipment.
On the outside they are simply normal people doing their day-to-day jobs but, deep down, they have the spirit of true local heroes.
You only have to speak to them for a few minutes to see that their knowledge, professionalism and genuine compassion has led to saving many people’s lives.
The wildfires in Greece, which continue to rage after starting weeks ago, have previously been described as scenes from an “apocalyptic movie” and labelled “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions” by the country’s prime minister.
There was a period when smoke and ash from Evia, Greece’s second-largest island just off the mainland, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange.
Pristine pine forests as well as homes and businesses have been destroyed, while hundreds of people were forced to quickly evacuate by sea to save their lives.
Little do many people know that a group of Welsh men actually helped to keep the country safe.
Station Manager, and UK Wildfire Tactical Advisor, Craig Hope, has been in the fire service for 28 years after joining the team “as a boy”, as he described it.
The 46-year-old was one of the team members who were deployed to Peloponnese earlier this month, and he opened up about how the team worked to battle through the challenge.
“I’ve seen these fires before,” he said.
“We would be out for 12 hours and we would carry lots. We would all drink four litres of water a day, carry Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and what we were able to.
“We could probably carry about 10 kilos with what people had to carry.”
As I imagined what it must be like to carry such a heavy survival kit, while also trying to put out huge flames, I asked what it’s like to carry something so heavy for such a long period.
“Are you just used to it now?” I asked. “Yes,” Craig, replied, with an astonishing sense of ease.
What seems an incredible challenge to many of us it just a part of day-to-day life for our Welsh fire fighters, who were putting in 12-hour shifts during their deployment.
As I spoke to the group another colleague told me they also stash their survival bags with protein bars, fluid and other essential bits and bobs. He said it’s important they have all they need with them “just in case they get stuck” anywhere.
But, in Greece, it was a constant battle against conditions as the humidity begins to drop in the middle of the day and the wind starts building again. The risk of fires reigniting was significant, and there were days when the temperature reached up to 40 degrees.
“It was hard work,” Craig added.
The skills South Wales Fire and Rescue brought to their Greek colleagues were learned straight out of the Welsh mountains, where hundreds of wildfires every year have meant Wales is at the forefront of fire fighting techniques.
This year, the Welsh service recorded more than 80 suspected deliberate fires over the course of a single weekend in April.
Part of their new “toolbox of skills” is the use of tactical burning or “using fire to fight fire”.
When asked how this works Craig said if you can imagine a fire spreading through an area it would eventually be able to spread from one side of the road to the other, but if you set another fire on the edge of the road where the fire is already burning, it will become contained.
“The Greeks – they don’t use it,” he said.
“We want to get them to try. It’s something we can work with, and work together.”
Earlier this month, Craig said: “The Greeks are really experienced in fighting wildfires; they have really good equipment and really good fire engines and lots of aircraft.
“But one thing they don’t use is tactical fire. We’re in the forests, working here in Greece, whereas in south Wales, we would have burnt out the vegetation already. We are always discussing and talking and learning from each other. And this might be something they take forward in the future.”
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When asked how the fires in Greece compared with fires in the Valleys the team said there were times when it looked similar. One colleague even compared it to scenes previously witnessed in Cwmcarn.
But Craig said he thinks the wet weather this summer has helped put people off lighting fires in Wales slightly. The team have found, on the whole, the fires have been fewer in number but greater in size over the last few months.
“We had quite a wet spring,” Craig added.
But, when asked what it was like to witness the fires in Greece, Craig’s answer was pretty astounding.
“Imagine the Valleys around here – seeing everything – all of it being on fire,” he said.
It’s a pretty devastating thing to imagine – looking around and seeing all the mountains on fire, ablaze, burning – and that’s what this team of firefighters were dealing with for days on end.
In some ways they were there to offer knowledge and – in other ways – to allow the Greek teams to have a rest and simply to take over for a while to let them recover from exhausting shifts.
Within a matter of days the team were asked if they were free, committed themselves, packed their bags and left their families to help people – to help strangers.
They may have been doing their jobs, but they also went above and beyond to keep people safe, to save people’s lives and to help those who needed it most.
As I left the fire station the fire officers, one by one, shouted: “Thanks for coming.” It’s more than fair to say we should be thanking them for all they do every single day.
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