Manitoba firefighters head to Australia to help combat wildfires

CANADA/AUSTRALIA –  Two Manitoba firefighters are heading to Australia to help combat the wildfires that have ravaged the country.

On Saturday morning, Geoffrey Smith and Trevor Tetrault of the Manitoba Conservation and Climate Wildfire Program took off from James Richardson International Airport for Vancouver and the first leg of their journey to Australia which has been battling wildfires since early November. They will meet up with the rest of the 21-member Canadian contingent organized by the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC).

The contingent is set to assist in New South Wales, a state on the east coast of Australia which has seen unprecedented wildfires.

“I’m pretty anxious about it” admitted Smith. “We’re going into an area dealing with fire fuels that we’re not used to or accustomed to in Canada. Their (command) structure is set up similar to our structure so I’m sure we’re going to fit in well. There’s a sense of adventure, going that far away to fight fire.”

“My understanding is they are having the worst wildfire season on record as I’m sure everybody has been watching the news knows so it should be interesting,” added Tetrault.

It is the fourth contingent of Canadian firefighters to head to Australia since the beginning of December. The addition of Smith and Tetrault brings a total of five Manitobans supporting the wildfire efforts there.

While both have more than 30 years experience combating forest fires, this is the farthest afield either has gone. But the international and inter-provincial nature of firefighting makes this mission a natural fit.

“The way the wildfire service works in Canada is that we often rely on our neighbours to help out,” said Smith, who has helped fight fires in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. “Manitoba has seen crews come in from right across Canada and the United States. The Australians and Mexicans have been in Canada to fight fires before. They could well end up in Manitoba some day.”

On Dec. 2, the first 21-member Canadian team left for approximately a one-month mission, and on Dec. 19, a second contingent of 30 highly qualified personnel from Wildland Fire Agencies across Canada left for a 31-day deployment to New South Wales. A third group of 17 firefighters were deployed to the state of Queensland on Dec. 30.

The latest contingent is expected to be in Australia for 38 days.

Drawn from volunteers from Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Parks Canada, the Canadians will assist the incident management team including roles in command, aviation, planning, logistics and operations.

“It helped to have the support of the family, that was pretty big,” said Smith. “Missing my son’s hockey season is going to bother me but Australia is looking for help and we’re pretty happy to step up.”

Australian firefighters battled dangerous conditions on Saturday as fires in New South Wales and Victoria states were expected to burn uncontrollably in temperatures above 40C and strong, shifting winds threatened to fan and spread the flames.

More than five million hectares have burned, 23 people have died and more than 20 people still unaccounted for in Victoria, where a state of disaster has been declared. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes. More than eight million more are under an emergency order.

“They’ve been dealing with 40C-plus temperatures and they’ve been in a heat wave now as we speak,” said Tetrault. “That’s going to be very difficult adjusting (to the heat).”

Twitter: @SunGlenDawkins

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