Learning bushfire lessons from America

Learning bushfire lessons from America

 23 October 2007

published by  www.abc.net.au

Australia — With bushfire season fast approaching, acontingent of Australian and New Zealand firefighters have recently returnedfrom North America, where they took lessons from their counterparts in managingextreme bushfires.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment’sstatewide logistics officer Richard Teychenne, who is based in Traralgon, was amember of the group who journeyed from Canada, down the west coast of the USAand into Mississippi, in the south.

“The tour went for about 32 days, we travelled about60,000 kilometres, took about 16 flights, three bus trips and ended up back athome about a week and a half ago,” Richard told ABC Gippsland’s GerardCallinan this morning.

“We were looking at the way Canadians and Americansactually manage their fires and manage their forests.”

With wildfires, whipped by strong winds, currentlyroaring through the state of California and forcing the evacuation of hundredsof thousands of people, Richard said the situation illustrated one of the majordifferences Americans faced in fighting fires – the massive population inAmerica, compared to Australia.

“Where we see a difference between Americans andAustralians is the population. There are urban interface issues that Americansare trying to deal with, which you can see in California at the moment, wherethey are actually evacuating tens of thousands of people.”

He said issues of population also hampered Americanfirefighters’ ability to conduct fuel-reduction burns in fire-prone areas.

“With a population of over 300 million, compared toAustralia’s population over 20 million, the issues that they are facing is howcan they actually do fuel reduction burning?”

“In LA they haven’t done burning in two years,”Richard said.

He said Australia, in comparison, was a world-leader inconducting fuel-reduction burns.

“Especially in Victoria where we are out there doingas much fuel reduction burning when conditions are right to do that. That’swhere they (the Americans) are really struggling right at this moment.”

Also affecting the ability of American firefighters toconduct fuel-reduction burns was the American culture of litigation.

“When you’ve got those 10 or 20 million dollarhouses right next to the forest, the community is saying ‘we don’t want burningthere’,” Richard said.

“But that’s mainly on the west coast, you get downto the south – to Mississippi – and fuel reduction burning is a normal way oflife down there. You’ve got these different cultures in just one country.”

The aim of the study tours, which this year sentAustralian and New Zealand firefighters to America, but has also seen Americanfirefighters visit Australia in the past, is for each party to learn lessonsfrom the other.

One area in which Australia has taken particular advicefrom America in recent years is that of mobile base camps. Camps which were usedto accommodate, feed and shelter firefighters during this year’s Gippsland fires- were based on a similar American initiative.

Richard said Americans were still setting the standardwhen it came to establishing mobile base camps.

“We went to a base camp in Redding in northernCalifornia. They were accommodating 3,500 people in a base camp, using verysimilar infrastructure to what we have now.”

“Three and a half thousand people – that’s the sizeof Maffra, or thereabouts.”

But when it comes to communicating to residents inbushfire regions, it’s Australians who are leading the way.

“In our firefighting we try to get the message outto the community of how they can manage their own houses, their own property.They (the Americans) really want to develop that but they are struggling to dothat,” Richard said.

“On reflection, Australia handles firefighting very,very well and Americans are now learning from us.”

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