With wildfires raging in Australia, federal agencies in the United States and Canada are sending firefighting personnel—from frontline firefighters to fire behavior analysts—to help squelch the flames threatening that nation.
The wildfires ravaging Australia have burned more than 20 million acres (8.4 hectares) , killed a billion animals and more than two dozen people, and destroyed nearly 2,000 homes. With the fire season expected to get worse in coming weeks, U.S. and Canadian fire agencies have sent in reinforcements to help their Australian counterparts battle these massive blazes.
“We’ve sent 159 firefighters who do everything from overhead to fire management to on-the-ground firefighters,” said Carrie Bilbao, a public affairs specialist at the U. S.-based National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
Similarly, the nonprofit Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre has deployed 95 people to Australia [PDF]. “None of the 95 we have sent are front-line firefighters,” said Melanie Morin, CIFFC information officer. “We sent people to assume positions such as incident commander; personnel for logistics, for operations, for planning, and for fire behavior analysis. We’ve sent several personnel in aviation.”
Both NIFC and CIFFC have reciprocal agreements with Australia, where the countries send fire personnel to assist. In the past, Australian firefighters have come to the U.S. and Canada to help fight wildfires. Morin said this is the first time Canada has sent firefighters to Australia. NIFC and CIFFC only send trained personnel selected through agency coordinators. Bilbao added that NIFC only sends federal firefighters abroad, not volunteers from states or localities.
Morin mirrored that sentiment. “We do get a certain amount of emails and calls and social media from people who want to volunteer and send things and help,” she said. However, CIFFC coordinates through Canada’s government departments. “We can’t accept volunteers.”
Bilbao noted there are many people willing to help in Australia, but what the country is often lacking is people with specialized skills pertinent to firefighting. “I know they have a lot of volunteers they use,” Bilbao said. “You get to a point where you need specific skills and abilities that they are running low on, so they are looking to supplement their crews with our people.”
NIFC personnel are in Australia for 35 days, including travel, while CIFFC taking is deploying personnel for 38-day stints. Both agencies started sending personnel in December and have sent multiples groups since. The initial groups sent will be coming back within the next week, and the agencies will continue to send more people as long as Australia requests more.
The fact that Australia and North America are in opposite hemispheres (it’s the Aussie summer, while the North American winter) has assisted the logistics of sending help. “Out West, our fire seasons are typically May through October,” Bilbao said. “So we’ve had firefighters available.”