Antipodeans on Californian front line

Antipodeans on Californian front line

21 July 2008

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Australia — Firefighters from Australia and New Zealand sent to the United States to fight bushfires have been deployed in northern California, NZ’s liaison officer in California, Alan Thomson, says.

The nine New Zealanders had all been deployed in Butte County, while 31 Australians had gone to fire lines and command centres in Mendocino, Shasta and Trinity counties, Mr Thomson said.

Thousands of people have been evacuated as fires burned almost 23,000ha, destroying dozens of homes and killing at least one person.

The NZ firefighters arrived in Butte County’s main town of Chico at the weekend, the Chico Enterprise-Record newspaper reported.

The wildfires were originally sparked by hundreds of lightning strikes a month ago today.

More than 2000 fires have burnt out nearly 3626sqkm.

Mr Thomson, serving in the fire incident command centre at Chico’s Silver Dollar fairgrounds, said hundreds of Kiwi firefighters had wanted to volunteer.

”It’s a wonderful opportunity to help out and to provide our experience,” he said.

The New Zealanders will be in the US for 37 days.

The Australian firefighters mainly from Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia left for Idaho yesterday week for a one-day induction before deployment to northern California.

It is the fifth deployment of firefighters Australia has sent to the US to help fight bushfires.

The last was in 2006.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in 12 counties affected by the fires and called in the California National Guard to help.

Despite the severity of the fire season in terms of hectares razed, there have been few deaths and injuries so far compared with previous disasters.

That is even so when comparing the current outbreak of blazes with what officials consider one of the worst series of fires in October 2003, during which 2990sqkm was blackened. Those blazes killed 24 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

The bushfires of the last month are ”the largest single fire event in history for California”, according to Kelly Houston, spokesman for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The previous record was set by the October 2003 fires, Mr Houston said.

California began keeping records on bushfires or brushfires as they are known in the US in 1936.

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