Some of Australia’s top firefighters are heading to California to face wildfires — and COVID-19

26 August 2020

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AUSTRALIA/USA – The US state of California is calling for help from Australia’s top firefighters to battle hundreds of wildfires that are currently raging.
The fires have destroyed at least 1,200 buildings and burned through more than 1 million acres of land.

Californian authorities are also battling the COVID-19 pandemic, with the state accounting for the highest number of infections in the country.

What help is California asking for?

California wants 55 specialised firefighters to fill mainly leadership roles for up to a month.

They include operational commanders to supervise teams on the ground, as well as heavy plant supervisors to work with crews that clear land to make fire breaks.

There has also been a request for a small group of specialised aircraft managers.

Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council CEO Stuart Ellis said Australia had provided help in the past.

“2020 marks the 20th year of the exchange of firefighters between Australia and the United States,” he told AM.

“It is becoming quite commonplace.”

However, fighting fires in 2020 is complicated due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Fighting fires during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mr Ellis said measures had been introduced to protect firefighters in the United States.

“There will be daily temperature checks and transportation is being adjusted so there is a reduced number of people in vehicles to ensure social distancing,” he said.

“Catering is not going to be in mess tents, individual meals will be provided.”

There are plans in place if a firefighter contracts COVID-19, but a decision on how to care for the person will be on a case-by-case basis.

“That is going to depend on medical advice, about whether people are hospitalised in-country (or) whether they are returned to Australia,” he said.

Before 2020, firefighters had to pass medical checks if they wanted to assist overseas.

The ABC understands anyone who wants to go to California will have to pass strict health tests and age will be taken into consideration because of COVID-19.

Those who go to California will have to quarantine for two weeks when they return to Australia, which Mr Ellis said he expected would play a role in deciding who goes.

“That needs to be factored into each (fire) commissioner’s consideration of their people’s availability,” he said.

“Not only will they be absent for the period they are in the United States, but they will also need to spend two weeks in quarantine on return to Australia.”

Which states and territories can offer firefighters?

Queensland will not send anyone because the state is about to enter their fire season and Victoria will not assist due to the health crisis.

New South Wales, the ACT and Western Australia are considering their options.

The final decision is up to each state and territory, but Mr Ellis said he is optimistic Australia will either meet or come close to the requested number.

California has asked for help to arrive by September 6.

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