Dry winter conditions created a Canadian fire season which was dominated by an unusually large number of forest fires, some in Boreal Forests that typically don’t burn. Area burnt by forest fires in the Northern hemisphere continue to set new records in the 21st century, and 2015 is likely to see this trend continue. As Canadian fire fighting resource became depleted the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) initiated a request for support from outside Canada.
On Monday 6th July 2015 David Nugent, Parks Victoria and Ian Tanner, Department of Environment Water and Natural Resources arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Sent forward, with only a few days notice, to support arrangements between CIFFC and Emergency Management Victoria (EMV). This resulted in 47 Australian fire fighters being deployed into Alberta and 52 into British Columbia from Emergency Service Organisations around Australia. Support to Canada was also provided by the United States, New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico.
So why Australia? Australia is well placed to assist with forest fires in Northern America. Incident management here is managed using the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS) which is very similar to the Incident Command System (Canada) and the National Incident Management System (United States). Providing easily transferrable skills and knowledge between countries. For some the most difficult adjustment is which side of the road to drive on, and tipping!
There has been a long standing relationship with Canada and the US which was developed through the forest industry managing forest fires. Since the 1950’s Forestry agencies have engaged each other through international study tours and exchanges. Today many forestry agencies in Australia are part of, or work very closely with, other land management agencies like Parks and Water Authorities. Together they are often referred to simply as the “land managers”. Across Australia these land managers and the other emergency service organisations have also evolved, they constantly improve in order to provide a more seamless and professional service to the community. We work as one under the principles of AIIMS to ensure that we are all providing best practice emergency management. Supporting Canada was no different as all Emergency Service Organisations (ESOs) around Australia worked to assemble a multi-agency team to fulfil the request.
Logistics – unsung heroes
In 2015 there were two international deployments, both managed by Emergency Management Victoria (EMV), in liaison with ESO’s from around the country. Many Australian fire fighters perhaps wrongly assume that all they need to do to assist another country is get on a plane and find out about some local practices. They may be surprised to learn about the significant amount of work that occurs in the background. This coordination role and the significant amount of work that is required generally goes without recognition.
Here is a small list of some of the many challenges that you may be presented with in order to fight fires another country;
- Suitability of personnel. Be appropriately trained and experienced and then, depending on the role meet fitness standards. In Northern America you will need to achieve an ‘arduous’ fitness classification to be allowed to work on the fire ground.
- Information needs to be gathered, prepared and provided to fire fighters before they leave home. Allowing them to prepare and pack the appropriate equipment. There are often weight and bag restrictions when working on fires in Canada and the US.
- Logistical considerations, How to get fire fighters from around Australia to the host country safely and in a timely manner. EMV were able to get over 100 people onto one flight from Australia to Vancouver in 3 days. A considerable achievement.
- Australian agencies, as employers, need to ensure that Occupational Health Safety and Welfare provisions have all been considered and met. Each agency will have slightly different processes that need to be accommodated, as will the host country. Safety will not be compromised.
- Immigration will need to be addressed. Often involving the US as they are a stopover to get to Canada.
- How to maintain communications with home. Particularly when fire crew are deployed into remote forest locations for up to 14 days. There may be long periods without the ability to talk to home.
Australian fire fighters will perform at their best if they are engaged in accordance with their competency, training and experience. Success and reputation relies on good communication between countries regarding the tasks to be undertake and the skills required. As fire fighters we understand the challenges that different topography, weather and fuel types present. Fighting fires in the forests of Northern America is unique and specialised work. They cut ‘guard’ (control lines) for kilometres and then run canvas hose from a lake, through pumps, to supply water for mopping up. Perhaps more akin to an irrigation system than a fire fighting operation. The Canadians use a lot of aircraft and availability of large volumes of water in relatively close proximity of fires is common. In order for these overseas missions to be successful fire fighters deployed need to be confident in their abilities, and adaptable to the new techniques that are employed.
There are many benefits to individuals, organisations and the Australian community that come from international deployments. We learn new skills and test existing ones. Consider the importance of the interagency and interstate relationships developed between Australians while deployed. It is well understood that teams function more effectively if there are established relationships. Therefore these new relationships between Australian fire fighters is a massive benefit to Australian communities when these professionals come together during times of greatest need, the large fire events that require interstate support. The more often our fire fighters work together the better the service to our communities when most at need.
Whilst fighting fires in the Northern Hemisphere is unique and specialised work there are many similarities with fire fighting in Australia. It is hot, dry and hard work. However, there are some notable differences. Canadians seem to think Australia has lots of dangerous animals, on the other hand Australians seem to think bears and cougars are more of a concern than spiders and snakes. I guess it is what you are used to.
Great to meet new people and different cultures. With the Canadian deployment fire fighters experienced working with firefighters from Mexico, South Africa and United States as they all worked to support the local firefighters. They met some great and interesting personalities and one of the highlights was the South African crews singing at the start of shift. Imagine how this would work in Australia, a bit of Cold Chisel before the briefing?
The Northern American Forests are often postcard views with large salmon filled rivers of cold water. The nature of bushfires and wildfires means that we are often required to work in beautiful places, one of the rewards of a difficult job. We generally don’t expect to be up to our knees in a swamp, which was the case for our fire fighters in parts of Alberta. As they worked in the “Muskeg”.
Accommodation is in fire camps. One of the most rewarding experiences for those deployed overseas. How to place a fire camp? There must be a training package for the people that locate fire camps. They need to be on ground that is particularly uncomfortable, a quarry or paddock full of long grass. Generally situated close to transport, ideally between a highway and a railway line. Then you bring in all the facilities and a couple of big generators to compete with the rail and road noises. And if you are really lucky the airbase is co-located. You get to sleep in a tent, use portable toilets and showers. If you didn’t pack a towel, the camp may supply a meter of paper towel for your shower. If you are not a lover of camping, then forest fire fighting may not be for you.
Deployments typically last for 14 days with 2 days off and then another 14 days. Then you are returned home. You can expect to have a day or two of briefings and orientation. This includes your chance to get over the jet lag. Australian firefighters are typically deployed in teams or sometimes down to pairs. You may find yourself deployed as an individual resources working in a remote area with the locals. This is perhaps one of the most rewarding opportunities and may be one of the most daunting depending on the individual.
A national approach
With the increase in large fires around the world there is a growing preparedness by countries to be able to provide international support. EMV has done an excellent job in managing the 2015 deployments but should not be expected to carry this burden on behalf of the ESO’s indefinitely. Emergency Service Organisations around Australia are working on a way forward. As a sector we continue to work more closely together as we strive to provide the most professional service possible to the community, both here and overseas. It is logical to assume that we will also master international deployments in time.
Are you prepared
So you want to fight forest fires in the northern hemisphere. Then you need to be prepared. Forest fire experience in Australia is an important box to tick. You need to have a valid passport. You need to be prepared to experience the challenges described above and the typical fire scenarios, like mop up. And you need to do it all while representing us, as Australians, in a professional way. You will be challenged, bored, frustrated, cold, hot and tired. And that’s just getting through customs. If you can tolerate the frustrations, you will have opportunities to be inspired and impressed with what is ultimately a very rewarding experience.