More than 100 Federal Firefighters Helping Australia Battle Bushfires

A spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center said 21 Idaho firefighters and fire management personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs have gone to Australia.

by Nicole Blanchard, The Idaho Statesman / January 8, 2019

(TNS) — More than 100 federal firefighters from the United States, including nearly two dozen from Idaho, have crossed the globe to help extinguish massive bushfires that have ravaged Australia in recent weeks.

Carrie Bilbao, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center headquartered in Boise, said 21 Idaho firefighters and fire management personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs have gone to Australia.

In total, 159 U.S. fire personnel have gone to aid Australia so far, and Bilbao said NIFC expects to send more than 100 additional personnel by next week to fulfill a request for more aid.

By Tuesday, the BBC reported that 15.6 million acres had burned. In contrast, fewer than 300,000 acres burned across the state of Idaho in all of 2019. Twenty-four people and an estimated half a million animals have died in the blazes Down Under.

Idaho firefighters lend a hand in Australia

Firefighters from Bureau of Land Management districts in Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls have been part of the United States’ effort to aid Australia, according to BLM Idaho’s acting assistant fire management officer, Andy Delmas.

Boiseans Dan Betts, a fire operations specialist, and Ray Bilbao, a unit superintendent, are among those that were sent to Australia, Delmas said. The Twin Falls Times-News reported that safety and training officer Clay Stephens was sent from the Twin Falls District, while EastIdahoNews.com reported that engine captain Farron Kunkel and battalion chief Kris Bruington were sent from the Idaho Falls District.

On Monday, the BLM said in a tweet that Idahoans had been assigned to engines to aid Australian personnel. Photos show the firefighters in front of equipment from Bayswater, Yarra Valley and Queenscliff, all of which are in the southeast state of Victoria. Twelve fires were still burning in Victoria on Tuesday, though none of them were at emergency level, according to Australian newspaper The Age.

Delmas said Australian authorities have requested help from “people with good, solid fire experience on engines and experience with rapid-moving fires.”

In November, BLM Idaho asked for volunteers with valid passports to sign up for potential assignments to Australia. The assignments are for 30 days, with five additional days for travel.

“I was impressed with the number of people who were willing to give up Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s to go,” Delmas said.

He said Australian fire officials have asked the U.S. to maintain lists for eligible volunteers for at least another month.

“It’s very early in their fire season,” Delmas said. “They still have two solid months of fire season, potentially.”

Boise agency coordinated Australia fire assistance

NIFC spokeswoman Bilbao said the Boise-based agency has been key in coordinating efforts between the U.S. and Australia.

“Our National Interagency Coordination Center has an agreement with Australian (fire authorities), and they work together to exchange resources,” Bilbao said.

In August 2018, 138 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand helped fight wildfires in Northern California and the Northwest, Bilbao said. The last time the U.S. sent aid to Australia was in 2010, when only 28 personnel were needed.

Bilbao said the two countries work well together.

“Some things may be a bit different, like the incident command structure, but it’s pretty easy to integrate between the two countries,” she said.

Australian bushfires and American wildfires require similar skills to fight, Bilbao added. And because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, its peak fire season is opposite the U.S. season, meaning crews often have downtime to help one another.

“We are trying to help Australia out as much as we can,” Bilbao said.

How to help Australia firefighters, victims

Want to lend a hand to Australian firefighters and victims of the fires? You can donate directly to the Victorian Country Fire Authority at cfa.vic.gov.au or the New South Wales Rural Fire Service at rfs.nsw.gov.au.

You can also donate to the Red Cross at redcross.org.au or help support wildlife affected by the fire by donating to Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc. at wires.org.au.

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