AUSTRALIA/USA – As the first ever deployment of American firefighters made the descent into Sydney from the United States on Saturday morning, the bushfire smoke cloaking the city for the past week filled the aircraft cabin. For firefighting aviation specialist Michelle Moore, from Idaho, the smell wasn’t alarming.
“I understand it’s pretty traumatic for you guys, but it’s something we deal with – it’s our comfort zone,” she said. “It smells like it’s time to go to work.”
Ms Moore is one of 21 specialist firefighting personnel from the US, and another 21 from Canada, to join NSW’s “marathon” effort to contain bushfires that now stretch along the entire coast and have, since July, burnt through two million hectares and destroyed more than 680 homes.
While NSW has sent firefighters to the US every year for the past two decades, it’s the first time the Rural Fire Service has made the call for a full-scale reciprocal response.
The group is spending Sunday in briefings before heading out on Monday to locations including the “mega fire” around Gospers Mountain that stretches from the Hawkesbury into the Hunter and Central Coast regions, and the Currowan fire north of Batemans Bay on the South Coast.
Inside the briefing notes on Sunday was the important lesson of getting familiar with Australia’s spiders and snakes. Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Paul Baxter said the Australian accent will probably also take some getting used to.
Luckily, the US personnel “operate on very similar systems to what we operate on here in Australia, so they can drop onto our teams and, once they’ve picked up the change in accents, add value to our firefighting operations very quickly,” he said.
Commissioner Baxter, who is also president and chair of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities’ Council, which coordinates international deployments, said it is the first time North American personnel have been sent to NSW to help with the firefighting effort.
“We haven’t had the need because of our firefighting resources here in Australia and New Zealand,” Commissioner Baxter said. But the call was made due to this year’s “unprecedented” bushfire season that began in winter, and, by the first week of summer, had already wreaked havoc throughout the state.
While 20 people might seem “insignificant” compared to the 2000 volunteer firefighters on the ground, Commissioner Baxter said the Americans are specialists in incident management and aviation who will help support management teams under extreme pressure in making “very big calls that could absolutely result in lives being saved or lost”.
“We’re talking about a marathon, not a sprint, so having the additional resources to go into these very specialist roles where we have less people is just so important,” Commissioner Baxter said.
Ms Moore said she was grateful for the opportunity to help, and her family didn’t mind her missing Christmas this year.
“We’re a family of firefighters. They’re used to us being gone for weeks and months at a time. They understand the mission.”
Californian air tactical group supervisor Josh Mathieson said it would be his first Christmas on the road, as December is usually their time to take a break – or at least, it was.
The RFS have taken advantage of the calmer weather to back-burn ahead of a predicted heatwave on Tuesday.
“We don’t call it fire season any more, it’s fire year. The way the conditions are now we kind of get fires year round. You’re just never out of the woods anymore.”
RFS Chief Superintendent Ben Millington said the deployment had arrived “just in time” ahead of deteriorating conditions on Tuesday, when temperatures in a number of areas are forecast to soar into the 40s.
Even more concerning than high temperatures is a forecast of more lightning activity, which is likely to result in new ignitions that will put increased pressure on firefighters, incident management teams and aircraft, Superintendent Millington said.
While the US forces were being briefed, he said firefighters on the ground would be taking advantage of a short window of milder conditions to carry out backburning and strengthen containment lines before weather worsens again.
“We are very fortunate that we have that period of 24 to 48 hours to get that very important work done before we see those conditions later this week,” he said.