USA / Australia — Peter Cecil has made three trips in the past year from Australia to Prescott in his quest to learn more about wildland firefighting training techniques and pass it on to the hundreds of volunteer firefighters he instructs.
Cecil is attending the Arizona Wildfire Academy in Prescott for the second year in a row because he’s impressed with its courses and fire camp atmosphere. He also observed the annual Prescott Basin wildfire drill last spring.
He’s been an instructor and student in four other states the last three years, too.
He has found that wildland firefighters in the USA are more organized and prolific at studying and sharing the lessons they learned when firefighters are injured or killed.
Of course Australia has some things it can teach this country, too.
“The biggest thing I learned here is, you’ve got so many more restrictions than we do,” Cecil said, and they relate directly to the fact that there are so many firefighting jurisdictions here.
In the state of Victoria where he’s a state wildland fire safety instructor, the state is the only jurisdiction. It has no local fire departments outside of the capital. No one has to try to figure out whose land a wildfire started on.
“We don’t have boundaries,” he said. “If there’s a fire, we go fight the fire.”
The “we” usually consists of volunteer firefighters in Australia. Victoria has about 52,000 volunteer wildland firefighters, or about 90 percent of the firefighters, even on large fires. Cecil spent all but the last five years of his 39 years in wildland firefighting as a volunteer, too.
“The overwhelming majority don’t want to be paid,” he said. “They wear it with pride.”
The Aussie volunteers get free training and equipment from the state, and if they are injured or killed their families get government pensions just like everyone else in the country. In the U.S, volunteers are generally limited to small local fire departments and districts that pay for their training and equipment.
Australian volunteers must have hands-on training, then four nights of classroom training, followed by exams.
Australia doesn’t have an equivalent to the U.S. “hotshot” crews that regularly hike miles to fight wildfires with tools they carry on their backs.
All the Australian firefighters are attached to fire trucks (or “appliances” as they call them) that follow bulldozers creating fire breaks or lines. The newer radios in these trucks now have GPS built into them, unlike those in the U.S.
While these firefighters might leave their trucks to fight flames, most of the time they stand in the back of the trucks with hoses.
The only exceptions are a couple of rappel crews like American smokejumpers
that put out small fires started by lightning in remote areas, he said.
Australians don’t use fire shelters, either, Cecil noted.
“My personal view is, it’s a false sense of security,” he said. He’s not even sure he likes the addition of heat shields for the Aussie firefighters in the truck beds, because some now think they can get closer to the flames.
Australians might tend to stay farther away from the flames than Americans because of the explosive nature of their eucalyptus forests. Fire quickly climbs up the bark to the top, then the flaming bark detaches and ignites spot fires all around.
If it’s windy, those flaming pieces of bark can fly miles in front of the main fire head and ignite hundreds of new fires.
That’s what happened in Australia’s deadliest wildfire complex, the Black Saturday bushfires (Australians commonly call wildfires bushfires).
The Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009 killed 173 civilians, although no firefighters died.
Like the devastating Yarnell Hill wildfire that killed 19 of Prescott’s hotshots last year, an extreme wind shift was a major factor in the Black Saturday bushfires. When the wind shifted 90 degrees, the narrow 50-kilometer-long fire turned sideways into a 50-kilometer-long fire front.
Cecil remembers pulling into Kinglake after the fire swept through and seeing the shocked survivors.