'Hotshot' help: US firefighters headed to Australia infernos

Rick Rycroft/AP
A pair of firefighters took a break Tuesday after fighting a blaze at Chum Creek,near Healseville, northeast of Melbourne, Australia. More help is coming soon: A team of 60 firefighters from the US is expected to arrive in Australia this weekend.

A team of 60 elite firefighters and land rehabilitation experts from the United States will be dispatched to Australia in coming days to help the country recover from its deadliest natural disaster on record.

With entire towns turned to ash by wildfires over the weekend and nearly two dozen fires still burning, Australia sent out a request Tuesday night for help from the US, says Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Australia has asked for planning and logistics managers, burned land rehabilitation teams, and a 20-person "Hotshot" crew, which Mr. Eardley says are "the most highly trained firefighters we have."

Fueled by 118-degree F temps and high winds, the fires raced through Australia's southeastern bush country on Saturday, overrunning and killing dozens of people. As a Monitor correspondent reported earlier this week from Melbourne, some of the fires were sparked by arsonists, prompting Australia's prime minister to describe the devastation as "mass murder."

A nationwide manhunt is now underway to find those responsible for the crimes. Meanwhile, authorities continue to bar residents from returning to some charred towns, including Marysville, where upward of 100 residents – a fifth of the entire town – are feared to be dead. The Age newspaper of Melbourne is full of sobering accounts of the tragedy, including this description of hard-hit Marysville: "Once described as 'God's own garden' in its heyday as a honeymoon destination, [the town] is now a wasteland of ash, with bodies lying in the street and amid the ruins."

President Obama has already phoned Australia's prime minister to offer condolences. He might have to call again – new fires were believed to have been lit by arsonists Tuesday night and high winds later in the week are expected to inject fierce new energy to smoldering embers.

The firefighters from the US are expected to arrive in Australia over the weekend. Hotshot crews will be put to work trying to contain the fires while the rehabilitation experts will begin the urgent task of stabilizing fire-charred soils, including areas disturbed by the heavy equipment used in firefighting. After a forest or bushland is burned – especially in an intense, all-clearing fire – topsoils are at high risk of erosion, experts say.

Post-fire landslides are common and can have devastating impacts on wildlife, fish, and even municipal water supplies. After a 2003 fire knocked out the watershed that provides drinking water to the Idaho Panhandle town of Bonners Ferry, the federal government responded with a $1.2 million emergency stabilization effort, which included dropping grass seed and bales of hay from a helicopter to blanket steep, erosion-prone slopes.

The US experts being sent to help with Australia's recovery will have their wages and travel expenses paid by the Australian government, says Eardly, with the National Interagency Fire Center. The two countries commonly swap firefighters during times of need.

"Their fire season tends to be during our off season, and vice versa," Eardley says. "It's logical we would turn to each other for assistance."

Federal fire managers typically have no trouble finding volunteers for the mission. Not only are firefighters eager to escape the cold, but they are also happy to repay a longtime friend – Australia has sent its firefighters to the American West during five of the previous eight fire seasons.

Two years ago, Barbara Montgomery, a computer analyst from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, volunteered to travel to Australia to help track and coordinate firefighters on the ground.

"I could have turned it down, but my husband just looked at me and said, 'You are absolutely crazy if you don't accept this assignment. It's warm there,' " said Ms. Montgomery, a grandmother with nearly 30 years' experience working for the Forest Service. "It was below zero when they called, and I just love the warm weather."

Once firefighters arrive in Australia, they will be given at least two days of training, including a critical safety lesson: how to drive on the left side of the road. Grant Beebe, a firefighter crew boss from Boise who fought fires in Australia in 2003, said both countries use the same organizational structure of managing large-scale firefighting efforts.

Apart from driving, the other major difference US firefighters will face is fire fuel type, Beebe said, in a 2007 interview. In Australia, the forests are made up of species of eucalyptus trees. Each species burns a bit differently, especially in comparison to the evergreen trees of the American West. One type of eucalyptus has
bark that can send burning embers upwards of 20 miles from the fireline, Beebe said.

Beebe said fighting fires in Australia was a memorable experience. "I hate to say we had a good time, but I can't think of another word," he said, describing his time there in 2003. "They were incredibly appreciative of us coming over. We were treated absolutely first class.... The Australians are incredible. They've got a great attitude. They're in dire circumstances, but they've got a great chin-up attitude."

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