Fire fighters from South East NSW are about to step into the heat of the Canadian wildfire season, with British Columbia ravaged by more than 3,300 fires since early July.
As the third wave of NSW fire fighters prepares to leave tomorrow (Wednesday) the situation on the ground in Kamloops, about four hours bus drive east of Vancouver is deteriorating.
The latest overview talks of active fire growing significantly, very high fire dangers to continue, communities under very thick smoke, and worsening fuel and fire measures over the next week
Bega’s Garry Cooper will see it first hand.
Garry spends his working week overseeing fire mitigation and hazard management for Far South Coast Rural Fire Service, covering the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley.
However, he will finish this particular working week with his boots on the ground in Canada as part of a 100 strong deployment made up of personnel from the NSW RFS, NSW Forestry Corporation, National Parks and Wildlife Service, and ACT RFS.
“Up to 1.2 million hectares has been alight and they have called on other countries for assistance,” Garry says.
Two earlier contingents from NSW are already on the ground, including Tracey Anderson and Simon May from Malua Bay RFS, and David Philp from Brogo.
Garry will arrive in the earlier hours of Thursday morning Bega time with Patrick Waddell from Bermagui Brigade, Jason Snell from Dalmeny – Kianga, and Ben Winter from Berridale.
This third six-week deployment marks a shift in the Australian contribution so far, with ‘arduous personnel’ requested by Canadian authorities.
“Key incident management staff have been helping out in planning, operations, and logistics but now they [Canadians] need fire fighters on the ground, Remote Area Firefighters like Patrick, Jason and Ben to support ongoing operations,” Garry explains.
Temperatures have been around or above 40 degrees Celsius right through summer, according to Garry, and over night humidity in the low twenties.
“Unprecedented weather conditions,” Garry says.
Canadian media has declared it a ‘Summer of Fire‘ with thousands forced to flee their homes at different times over the last month – up to 45,000 at the peak of the emergency, an estimated $230 million in fire fighting costs, and dozens of homes and trailers lost.
While hot, smokey, dirty conditions are nothing new to the Aussies on the ground, they will be working with and in a different landscape and environment.
“It’s extremely steep terrain, very close to the Rocky Mountains,” Garry says.
“And I am guessing a lot of their forests are pine and red woods – all that conifer type timber, very different to what we are used to fighting.”
Local RFS boss, Superintendent John Cullen says he supports Garry and local volunteers being called up to serve overseas.
“Garry is respected throughout the state and that’s why he’s been picked,” he explains.
John says he is happy to see the effort and commitment of local volunteers like Tracey Anderson, Simon May, David Philp, Patrick Waddell, and Jason Snell being recognised with these higher duties.
“We are very proud of them, going over and representing this area,” he says.
“The experience they will gain out of this will be healthy for our organisation nationally and locally,” John believes.
And there’s a debt to repay, part of the fraternity of fire fighting John says.
“In a time of need, everyone steps up.”
“We’ve had firefighters from this area of Canada over here working with NSW RFS during serious fires,” John says.
Garry has been an RFS volunteer since he was 17 years old, following a family tradition. From there it built into a career with Far South Coast RFS based at Bega Fire Control.
He says this opportunity to help on the other side of the world is overwhelming.
“The Service puts out an Expression of Interest every year to all members of staff and volunteers to go on an Overseas Deployment Register,” Garry explains.
“That register is there in case a request comes through for supporting fire fighting operations in other countries.”
By the time Garry and his comrades return to the Far South Coast the region will be in the early days of its bush fire season.
“The introduction of very large air water tankers here in the last couple of years is something that is day-to-day business for the Canadians and the Americans, so there is scope for us to learn more.”
“The more we do this and communicate with other countries, the more versatile we become for our communities at home,” Garry says.