US wildfires teach ACT firemen new skills

US wildfires teach ACT firemen new skills

9 August 2008

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USA/Australia — Fighting fires is hard work at the best of times.

And when you’re fighting them 13,000km from home, day in, day out, the work can start to get to you.

But when the call came for Canberra firefighters Neil Cooper, Scott Farquhar and Tim Rhodes, they didn’t hesitate.

”It’s when you get close to coming home that you start to think about it a lot,” Mr Cooper said.

”But we are in good spirits.”

The trio are part of a team of 45 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand sent to California to help contain fires that have broken out during the bushfire season.

The men are based at the Siskiyou complex, a makeshift camp for 2335 men and women.

The Siskiyou fires were started on June 21 by a lightning strike. The estimated ”containment” date is August 30, though a freak wind or lightning strike could change that.

Everything at the camp tents, toilets, cooking facilities is temporary, and working 16-hour days, 14 days straight is tiring.

But speaking by phone from California, Mr Cooper and Mr Farquhar said the toil was part and parcel of fighting a fire across 108,000 acres (43,700ha) of country.

”We are in country that is up to 8000 feet [2400m] above sea level, and it’s super-steep. Temperatures are 95 to 100 Fahrenheit [35 to 37degree Celsius] every day.”

Mr Farquhar said some of the mountains were like ”three or four Black Mountains stacked on top of each other”.

Personal danger is a consideration a recent helicopter crash had killed nine and injured four, and another firefighter had died when the fire broke through a ”contained” area.

Mr Cooper said some areas were inaccessible to cars and helicopters, and could be reached only by mule train.

But he said the experience was invaluable because it had already taught him skills he could bring back to Canberra.

”It’s not a raging fire like the 2003 fires in Canberra, its just steep, steep country.”

He said the men had faced some unique cultural challenges, too. ”It’s an area that has extremely high cultural value.

”Tim [Rhodes, the third Canberran], was tasked with protecting a 300-year-old native American burial ground. He had assistance from native Americans, showing him what he can and can’t do. You can’t even move some of the rocks.”

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