Haywards Heath Firefighter battles Amazon fires

Neil with chief Kotok
Neil with chief Kotok

For many being a firefighter is a tough enough job as it is. However, one Haywards Heath crew member decided to take on a bigger challenge - the Amazon rainforest.

As part of the BBC series ‘Toughest place to be a...’ Neil Fairhall left the town behind to join the Jatoba Fire Brigade during the dry season in Mato Grosso state in Brazil.

Neil, 34, lives in Haywards Heath with his partner Karrie and son Freddie.

He replied to an email sent around by the BBC asking for participants and was shortlisted with two other firefighters before being selected.

“I didn’t know where I was going until six days before I left. I was quite surprised,” he said. “Me and the crew were wondering where they would send me but I never thought it would be the Amazon. I didn’t really know what to expect.”

For ten days Neil worked with fire chief Edimar Dos Santos Abreu and his crew battling forest fires in temperatures reaching 35 degrees.

“It was hot, really hot and they had limited equipment,” he said. “There was a speech barrier but we got through it and worked together.”

Edimar and his team of five firefighters cover an area equivalent to England and Scotland combined.

They put out a lot of the fires with brute force, smothering the flames with beaters.

He said: “The biggest culture shock was when I got out there and stayed with a tribe, who were all naked - it isn’t something you see every day. Apart from that the fire brigade were quite similar to being at home the same kind of banter.”

Fire chief Edimar took Neil to the Kamayurá tribe, who live in the Xingu Indigenous Park. The crew was teaching local people to fight the fires themselves.

He said: “I just thought it would be an amazing experience that I would never be able to do again. It’s not like you can walk into a travel agents and ask to go to a part of the Amazon and work with a fire team.”

Since the programme went out he admitted that he had received a bit of teasing from his crew.

He said: “It was just brilliant, I feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to go out there.

“I loved them all, they were so amazing and worked these massive shifts, we were at one fire for 24 hours, which wouldn’t happen over here.

“It was just an amazing experience, I am so glad I did it.”

Neil added that he still keeps in touch with Edimar through Facebook and Skype using Google translator.

Neil now hopes to arrange events to raise money for Edimar and the people he met to improve their facilities.