Australia — When a helicopter went down in California last week killing nine firefighters, North Melbourne’s Caroline Douglass swung into action.
As the first Victorian woman to be enlisted by United States authorities to help battle the country’s ferocious summer bushfires, Ms Douglass is responsible for co-ordinating a contingent of senior Australian and New Zealand firefighters.
“When I heard (about the crash) my involvement was that I had to make sure that all of the Australian and New Zealand firefighters were alright,” Ms Douglass told the Leader from California.
“Thankfully, no Australians were on board the doomed chopper.”
The crash happened 55km from the northern Californian town of Redding, where Ms Douglass is helping battle the fires that have raged for nearly 60 days.
“Today has been a fairly sombre time for everyone,” she said following the accident.
“Eleven people have died working on these fires now and it’s just tragic for everyone in the firefighting community, especially the families.”
Ms Douglass is one of 44 Australians deployed to California to provide relief for their American counterparts.
“It’s really nice to be able to return favour to the hundred or so American firefighters that came over and helped us in 2007 for the Great Divide fires,” she said. “It’s also a fantastic learning experience to see how another country fights fires and what we can learn from them and take home to Victoria.”
She said many of her American colleagues were blown away by the scale of Australian bushfires.
“When you tell them that we have fires that cover 2.5 million acres they can’t believe it,” she said.
“It’s totally different to here where we’ve got about 1900 fires burning simultaneously but they’re only covering a couple of hundred thousand acres.”
Ms Douglass is in the first of two 14-day tours of duty and each day works shifts of 12 to 14 hours. When she’s not helping the Americans put out fires, Ms Douglass works as the state fire co-ordinator for the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
The 41-year-old is looking forward to getting home to see her husband Terry and golden retriever Kess.