Why Kiwis are helping Canadians fight wildfires

Crews from New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and the US have arrived in Alberta to fight wildfires, the worst the province has seen in many years. 

BC Wildfire Service/Reuters
Smoke rises from a 17,000 acre fire on the north side of Puntzi Lake, British Columbia in a picture release by the BC Wildfire Service July 11, 2015. The area is subject to an evacuation order.

Canadians, Americans, Mexicans, New Zealanders, and Australians make an unlikely group, but they are all being brought together by one thing: a growing threat of wildfires in their home countries.

For at least the past decade, the nations have shared firefighters and resources to tackle some of their toughest blazes. Most recently, with about 92 wildfires burning in Alberta, Canada at the time of this writing, crews have arrived from those countries to help put out fires that are threatening thousands of square miles of wilderness, and people’s homes and livelihoods.

“We’ve had quite a few different crews that have been arriving as of late,” said Jamie Parker, a firefighter rappeller with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, to Global News. “We’ve had crews from the United States, California in particular, we’ve had crews from Australia and New Zealand and we’ve had multiple crews from across Canada.”

Alberta is currently experiencing one of the busiest wildfire seasons in recent history, spurred by a particularly hot summer and lightning strikes in dry forest. 1,200 fires have been sparked across Alberta this season, up from 800 at this time last year.

A study released in May by Nature Communications reported that fire seasons are on average 18 percent longer than they were 35 years ago, and while the incidences of fires are not necessarily increasing, they are impacting larger swaths of land.

On Tuesday night, 17 firefighters arrived in Edmonton from New Zealand. John Sutton, the task force leader for the New Zealand contingent, told Global News that fighting wildfires in Alberta isn’t much different than back home, apart from the sheer size of the blazes.

“All the people in the team that’s come are experienced in fighting fires in large timber, very similar fire environment to what you have here, it’s just on a lot bigger scale in Canada,” he said.

New Zealand’s National Rural Fire Officer Kevin O'Connor said the group of Kiwis, who arrived Tuesday night, included planning, logistics, radio, safety, finance, fire behavior, and aircraft supervisory staff, according to the Otago Daily Times.

The group will spend about five weeks working to contain fires in Alberta alongside Canadians, Mexicans, Americans and Australians. The team will likely stay in tents in rural areas.

Mr. O'Connor said the only other time National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA) staff went to Canada was in 2009, but the staff had worked with Canadians on previous deployments to Australia.

The NRFA said Kiwi firefighters had helped their counterparts in Australia nine times and their American counterparts five times over the past 15 years.

O'Connor said the Canadians would pay for the trip.

"We have an agreement with Canada ... that we just refresh every year, that means we can call on the Canadians or they can call on us, and the host agency picks up the costs of the deployment."

Mr. O'Connor said 35 days was a fairly standard time for a North American deployment. He said deployments to Australia normally lasted about two weeks.

About a week ago, 62 firefighters from Jalisco, Mexico arrived in Edmonton arrived to help. In all, nearly 300 firefighters have been brought in from outside of Alberta to assist the 1,100 local firefighters, according to Global News.

“The guys are good to go,” said firefighter Hector Trejo, of Jalisco, to Global News. “Our season just ended a couple weeks ago so we’re happy to help up here.

“Most of the guys, this is their passion – fight fires, get to know the forest – and what better way to do it than come to another country and help others.”

Fire crews from Jalisco have been helping fire crews in Canada for about the last decade.

Geoffrey Driscoll, a wildfire information officer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the drop in the number of wildfires over the last couple of weeks can be attributed in part to the crews coming in from around the world to offer help.

“They’re doing an amazing job being able to really put out these fires as quickly as possible and contain the ones they’re not able to put out,” Driscoll said Tuesday night.

Driscoll told Global News that sharing firefighters throughout the world is fairly routine practice. “If the next year our partners need us, we’ll be glad to send our firefighters that way,” he added.

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