U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighters reflect on assisting with wildfires in Australia

firefighters from U.S. assist in Victoria Australia
FWS firefighter Reynaldo Navarro and a Victoria Rural Fire Service firefighter attack a spot fire. BLM photo by David Carrera.

BY KARI COBB

Although Australia is no stranger to wildfires, the 2019-2020 season was one of the worst fire seasons on record. Major bushfires began in spring 2019 (June), and by September were stronger, more intense, and more frequent. The fire situation continued to worsen, and by November, Australia requested international assistance to suppress the thousands of fires on the landscape.

Over a span of four months, the United States responded to Australia’s request for firefighters by providing personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. In total, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provided 11 individuals to assist in suppression efforts.

FWS employees filled important roles, including engine captain, situation officer, aircraft officer, task force leader, fire behavior analyst, division supervisor, planning section chief, operations section chief, air support group supervisor, and public information officer.

“Our mission was to support the Australian government in suppressing the bushfires and keeping the Australian people and communities safe,” said Reynaldo Navarro, Assistant Fire Management Officer, South Texas Refuge Complex. “Our tasks included firing operations, engine support, mopping up or blacking out, hand line construction, hazard tree felling, and structure triage and protection.”

“Being in Australia was a great, yet very humbling experience,” said Kyle Bonham, Engine Captain at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, of his time in Australia.

Although the Australia bushfires brought great destruction and impacts to the country, FWS personnel were welcomed with cheer and open arms.

“What stands out to me are the Australian people,” said Richard Sterry, Fire Management Specialist, Lakewood, Colorado. “I was assigned to a more rural area, and the Australian people were wonderful to work with. They always had smiles on their faces and were constantly going out of their way help us learn their system.”

By mid-February, more than 46 million acres (72,000 square miles) burned since the first fires in June, 2019.  Overall, 80 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area in New South Whales, and 53 percent of the Gondwana World Heritage rainforests in Queensland burned.

Fighting bushfires in Australia provided a unique opportunity for FWS firefighters to learn new firefighting skills, as well as hone the skills required to fight fire in the United States. Due to Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere, fire season occurs at a time when much of the U.S. is out of danger of wildfire. Firefighters helping with suppression efforts in Australia were afforded a unique opportunity to polish firefighting skills needed during wildfire season in the U.S.


Kari Cobb is the acting public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.

Some firefighters return from Australia while others are deploying

Angeles National Forest crew returns after 30 days

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

Three more Incident Management Teams from the United States and Canada have deployed to Victoria, Australia. These teams will continue to support local crews in East Gippsland, positioned in the regional Incident Control Centres and out on the fire ground.

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

The 20-person hand crew that left January 7 from the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California to assist with the bushfires in Australia returned 30 days later on February 5.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
The 20-person hand crew from the Angeles National Forest returned from Australia February 5. USFS photo.

I admit, I am old-school about some issues related to firefighting. I could not help but notice a striking difference between the first photos of U.S. personnel en route down under, compared to the more recent groups. The early photos from December of the personnel from scattered locations around the Western U.S. looked like they could have been on their day off on the way to McDonalds. But beginning in January the photos began to show what was obviously professionals on the way to an important assignment. As they walked, wearing their uniforms, through the airport in Australia other travelers in the airport spontaneously applauded. Very different from the early groups wearing sneakers, jeans, and a wide variety of t-shirts in assorted colors.

I mentioned to Robert Garcia, the Fire Chief for the ANF, the difference in the appearance of the various groups of firefighters when they were traveling. He said:

We honestly believe that how we show up is a key part of professionalism and as such, their duty. Despite many changes, we are trying our best to hold to the professional core values of duty, respect, and integrity.

We insisted that they all depart and arrive in the FS uniform and although they are represented by all 5 ANF IHC crews, ANF Engine crews, prevention, and aviation, they all wore the USFS, Angeles NF Nomex and T-shirt.

Here is a link to more information about the crews from the U.S. working in Australia. The article includes a couple of videos.

Below are photos of the ANF firefighters in more casual attire as they were working in Victoria, but still wearing the ANF t-shirts.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF pose with firefighters from Victoria, Australia. USFS photo.
20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF in Victoria, Australia. USFS photo. USFS photo.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF pose with firefighters from Victoria, Australia. USFS photo.

Saving a Very Large tree

Huge tree in the Eucalyptus genus

firefighters save Messmate tree Victoria Australia
Firefighters work to save a Messmate in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Forest Fire Management Victoria.

Chris Hardman, Chief Fire Officer for Forest Fire Management Victoria, distributed these photos of firefighters working to save a very large tree in Australia. Here is what he wrote:

FFMVic Firefighters Henry Lohr and his team mates protected this really important community asset, an ancient Messmate near Bendoc. I hope the work they have done clearing around the base and pumping 600ltrs of foam into the root area saves this tree.

Messmate is a common name for a group of species of tree in the plant genus Eucalyptus.

firefighters save Messmate tree Victoria Australia
Firefighters work to save a Messmate in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Forest Fire Management Victoria.

Rain stops some of the bushfires in Australia

A number of locations have received 100 mm (almost four inches) of precipitation

Precip Observed
Observed precipitation observed during the seven-day period ending February 7. The darkest green color indicates 100 mm (almost 4 inches) of precipitation.

Many areas in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland have received multiple inches of rain over the last seven days with a number of locations recording about 100 mm (almost four inches).

A heavy rain could come close to putting out some fires but a light rain, depending on the fuel (vegetation), might just pause the spread for a while. And some regions have received little or no rain.

NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says the rain is “breaking the back” of the bushfire season. “The rain is good for business and farms as well as being really good for quenching some of these fires we’ve been dealing with for many, many months,” the commissioner told ABC TV on Friday.

The forecast for Sydney, on the NSW coast, calls for nearly 100 percent chance of precipitation every day over the next eight days.

Precipitation forecast for Sydney, Australia
Precipitation forecast for Sydney, Australia. Generated Saturday February 8 local time.

It is more difficult for animals to survive megafires than “normal” fires

The cumulative effects of the bushfires in Australia during the 2019-2020 summer are unprecedented.

bushfire in Victoria Australia
Photo of a fire in Victoria, Australia, by Forest Fire Management Victoria Forest Fire Operations Officer Dion Hooper, taken on Wombargo Track looking towards Cobberas (north of Buchan in East Gippsland).

On a typical, average, or normal vegetation fire, many animals can move out of the area and others can hide underground. They even depend on periodic fires to recharge the ecosystem in some cases. But as we more often have fires that are not “normal” — extremely large and moving very rapidly — I tend to worry more about the adverse effects on wildlife. Even if they survive the fire itself, when they emerge there might be no food or shelter left for miles.

The cumulative effects of the bushfires in Australia during the 2019-2020 summer are unprecedented.

From CNN:

Some animals, like koalas and kangaroos, are primarily killed directly by the fires — for instance, by being incinerated in flames or choking on smoke. Nearly a third of all koalas in New South Wales have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed, federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in December.

Photos from the ground show koalas with singed fur, raw patches of burnt flesh, and blistered paws. Even if they are rescued and treated, sometimes their injuries are simply too extensive to survive.

Wombats have also been hit hard — they don’t cope well with heat or stress, and panic at the smell of smoke. The small, stubby-legged marsupials can’t run very fast or far, and are largely at the mercy of the flames.

“It’s just horrendous,” said Graeme Jackson, a NSW resident who has experience raising orphaned wombats. “A wombat can run 30 kilometers (per hour/18.6 mph), he can run that fast (for) short distances — and then he burns.”

From the Scientific American:

The sheer scale of this season’s fires, in terms of both size and intensity, also works against animal survival—both during and after the fires. “These fires in Australia are so severe that I fear it doesn’t matter that these small animals can even find these refugia,” Anna Doty, a physiological ecologist at California State University, Bakersfield says, noting that the heat may penetrate into crevices and hollows. And this time around, the burn scars will be so large that recolonizing their interiors will take an extremely long time, especially for slower-moving species, she says.

Firefighter headed to Australia jumps at the opportunity to help

“I am in a unique position where I actually can do something and I actually can help.”

Justine Gude
Justine Gude is interviewed before boarding a flight to help with the bushfires in Australia, January 7, 2020. Screenshot from the ABC7 video below.

As 20 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service were about to depart from Los Angeles for a flight to Australia to assist with the bushfires, reporters found Justine Gude who was willing to speak on camera about the assignment. She gave an excellent interview.

Ms. Gude said, in explaining why she volunteered for the overseas trip:

You watch the news or you read these stories of these terrible things that are happening and you always want to know, ‘How can I help, what can I do?’ And I am in a unique position where I actually can do something and I actually can help. So, who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity. I’m super excited.

Two weeks later in Australia, Carolyn Cole, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, found her. Again she was very quotable:

You know they say ‘It takes a village’. Well it takes all types to have a successful hand crew. You need the funny guy, you need the smart guy, you need the strong guy.

The reporter asked, “What is your role”?

Me? I’m the strong guy!

Then she doubled over laughing

Here is the first interview in Los Angeles, January 7, 2020, by ABC7:

And two weeks later, in Australia, by the LA Times:

Two more 20-person hand crews are traveling to Australia today, January 22. They are a combination of Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service firefighters from throughout the United States. The U.S. has already deployed more than 200 USFS and DOI wildland fire staff to the Australian Bushfire response.

“Recent rains have been a welcome relief to fire crews and communities across Australia, but have not extinguished the risk, “said Stuart Ellis, Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) CEO. “We are grateful for the arrival of US fire task force personnel this week. Australia is a large country, and while we have seen generous rain fall in the past few days in some areas, we are still experiencing kilometers of active fire front and a large clean-up ahead of us. We’re halfway through the summer and there are still challenges ahead for us this season.”

U.S. Forest Service Fire Director Shawna Legarza recently returned from Australia in support of the bushfire response.  “The large, landscape-scale devastation is unprecedented in terms of its impact on Australian economy, its people and their communities, and the effect to numerous ecosystems and habitats. It was humbling to observe the Australians’ resilience, the response in Australia, and level of support from our agency. We will continue to learn from each other in this complex fire environment.”

Based on requests from AFAC, USFS and DOI, the National Interagency Fire Center said wildland fire personnel will continue to provide assistance as requested through the existing agreement. The U.S. firefighters are filling critical wildfire and aviation management roles in New South Wales and Victoria.

Incident Management Team in Australia
A United States Incident Management Team in Australia, January 17, 2020. Photo by Traci Weaver for the US Forest Service.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.