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Locals reflect on helping battle Australia wildfires

Photo submitted by Mike May

Masha Scheele

Hinton Forestry staff have returned to Hinton after assisting Australian fire crews for roughly four weeks.

Krista Woods, an area forester of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF), said helping out was a huge opportunity for Alberta to give back to a country that has helped Canada in the past.

Woods was part of the Incident Management Team (IMT) personnel, supporting Australian staff that had been working on the fires for months of a very long wildfire season.

“This was also a great opportunity for us to share our knowledge and experience with our Australian counterparts that may help them improve their systems and processes, and transversely, an opportunity for us to learn from their experiences and knowledge that may help us improve our management of wildfire incidents,” said Woods.

Mike May, who is a senior wildfire training specialist at the Hinton Training Centre, stated that Australians have helped Canadians on numerous occasions in times of need with too many fires and not enough resources and it was nice to reciprocate the support.

May returned from his role as a planning officer in Moruya, New South Wales on Feb. 10.

“We certainly work on similar structures in terms of managing or commanding a fire. There are differences but it’s a similar structure,” he stated about the ease of working in Australia.

He added that some of their technical computer software and modelling systems were extremely user-friendly, which is something that would benefit his organization in Canada.

The biggest difference he noted was the fact that most of the workforce was volunteer-based.

While working with volunteers was great it also posed its own challenges as most of them juggle other jobs to support their families or they’re burned out from the long fire season.

Woods was also amazed and impressed with the level of volunteerism and resilience seen throughout her deployment.

“Despite challenges such as being displaced from their homes, losing their homes or livelihood, working tirelessly day after day on the incidents, they continued to be positive, friendly and supportive,” she said.

Both Woods and May noted big differences in wildfire behaviours as well. Australian forests are dominated by Eucalyptus trees, which are very different from Alberta’s forests and because of their chemical make up are very flammable and contribute to intense wildfires.

“Eucalyptus, there’s hundreds of different species, it’s very oily inside, when it catches fire it almost drips fire because of all the oils in it,” said May.

Some Eucalyptus trees have loose ribbons of bark that when ignited can travel in the wind up to 30 kilometers or more and start new wildfires, they explained. This is referred to as spotting, and is substantially further than the spotting distances seen in Alberta.

As far as wildfire suppression operations go, they are much different than what Woods was used to in Alberta. She explained that Alberta has large areas with limited access and helicopters are used often, while in Australia many areas are accessible by heavy engines due to the different soil type and brush density.

Unlike Alberta, there is a lack of water availability in Australia and they utilize something called back-burns and burnouts, where they burn areas to eliminate fuels creating a barrier to prevent the spread of fire.

Different tools are used for fire suppression like massive wildfire engines called unimogs, and rakehoes called McLeods that aren’t used in Alberta. Woods was pleasantly surprised at how well staff dealt with some of the challenging elements of such large wildfire incidents.

“I thought the state did an exceptional job taking care of their firefighters, despite resources being in short supply. I was particularly impressed with the very direct and effective messaging about the wildfires that was communicated through billboards, social media and radio advertisements,” she stated.

May also noted the relationship between the Rural Fire Service and the media was extremely fluid and transparent.

Despite differences, the Australian and Canadian command systems are similar enough to adapt easily, Woods stated.

Forestry and fire crews in Canada use a system called Incident Command System (ICS) while in Australia they use a different command structure called Australian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS), which has some differing role functions, reporting lines and terminology.

Woods was assigned to Victoria State along with seven other Canadians, four of which were Albertans, for a 32-day deployment.

Initially, Woods served as Base Camp Manager for a fire base in a town called Tallangatta in the Hume region and was later moved to the Gippsland region to complete her deployment there.

She stated that she learned some valuable things, which she could implement in future logistics here at home.

May worked on developing strategic plans for the incident he was assigned to and worked with the operations section to ensure there were sufficient resources to carry forward some of the plans.

In Hinton, he is considered more of an operations person, but is a certified incident commander and able to fulfil both logistic or operational roles.

During his last two days of his deployment in Australia it rained around 150 to 200 ml, which caused some major mudslides.

“They essentially went from natural disasters in fires to natural disasters in flood and mudslides in the matter of a weekend,” he said.

Fires in the area he was stationed are now under control and non-threatening.

Marc Freedman from AAF was also deployed to Australia as Operations Section Chief, in charge of directing all actions to meet the incident objectives and has since returned to Hinton.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre and Australia have pre-agreed upon standards in place for how much each specialist would be paid during deployment.

All expenses are covered by the requesting agency, Australia, including wages, travel, accommodations and meals.