Canadian firefighters' experiences “down under”

Friday 20 Mar 2020

John Mash of Kenora, a small town in North western Ontario, Canada has been working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry fire crews for the last 23 years, and he's recently returned from service overseas where he helped fight the wildfires in Australia.

"One of the things that really stood out to me was the sense of duty and volunteerism displayed by a lot of the Australians that were directly impacted by the fires, either having lost livestock or having their own homes burned. They would still show up to work every day and volunteer their time. I got to work hand-in-hand with those folks," he said.

Mash recalled following the wild fires in Australia before Christmas, noting the season was unprecedented. Instead of being able to focus their resources in spots along the coast, the country's resources were needed up and down the coastline all at once. Firefighters from New Zealand, the U.S. and Indonesia also helped. Mash was centred in New South Wales, where temperatures exceeded 40 or 45 Celsius in the interior. The highest temperature recorded was 48 C in Sydney, which became the hottest place on Earth.

The smoke and haze from the fires might last a couple of weeks in Kenora, but it lasted months in New South Wales. If a hectare is the size of a soccer field, Mash says a million hectares burned in the area near Moriah, where he was stationed on the Tasman Sea. Air currents were so strong, parts of trees were carried out to sea, only to be washed ashore. The loss of wildlife was also difficult, along with the loss of homes and livestock.

Every five days, he described how the dry, hot winds would come off the desert from the interior of the country. These winds would feed the embers and relight fires already contained. Eucalyptus trees are common, and they have a lot of oil to fuel the wildfires. The trees are also home to koalas, and the populations were threatened by the loss of habitat, Mash added.

Fortunately, he said the Sydney area saw about 400 mm of rain in two days, which helped fire crews contain the wildfires. However, it presented issues related to erosion. In Australia, they rely on about 77,000 volunteers to help fight fires. They worked 10 to12 hour days for no pay, some even worked after losing their homes.

Of the more moving experiences for Mash was seeing a volunteer firefighter in a grocery store, who had just lost their home. Without hesitation, another firefighter reached into their pocket to pay for the volunteer's groceries.

Fire information officer Jonathan Scott also spent about a month in Australia recently, where he helped fight wildfires. Last week, Scott talked about the experience. "We were most certainly welcomed and integrated into their structure. They were very, very happy to have us come help, and it was great to help. It was really rewarding when they said, near the end, how tired they were at that time when we were arrived in mid-January and we were there to come relieve them," he said.

Scott was stationed near the suitably-named community of Ovens in the province of Victoria. He was helping crews that had been at work since November. The fire he was overseeing was about 100,000 ha in size, and it wasn't even one of the larger ones. A tour of the fire lines took a few hours, Scott recalled. For comparison, the fire that forced evacuations near Pikangikum last spring was about 4,000 ha in size. An encouraging sign for Scott was seeing how the trees and forests were already starting to grow back, before he had to leave for Canada.


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