U.S., allies and partners help Australia fight fire disaster

U.S., allies and partners help Australia fight fire disaster

Top Stories | Jan 24, 2020:

Tom Abke

The most devastating scourge of bushfires in recent Australian history has drawn expert personnel and specialized assets from North America and the Pacific islands to help Australians save lives and property by fighting the fires and preventing their spread.

A California-based crew of 20 veteran firefighters departed for Australia during the second week of January 2020 to join more than 150 U.S. fire specialists already dispatched to help combat out-of-control wildfires that have killed at least 28 people and scorched millions of acres, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the Rural Fire Service of Australia’s state of New South Wales, announced the arrival of the U.S. firefighters to Australia’s Sydney International Airport. The Americans would be moving on to the nearby state of Victoria to help their Australian counterparts in battling wildfires there, Fitzsimmons said.

A group of locals greeted U.S. firefighters at the airport, he said in a January 9, 2020, Twitter post: “All gathered gave a spontaneous & lengthy round of applause, reflecting the gratitude & admiration we all have for their generosity.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded to their arrival with a tweet of his own: “Thank you to our US friends.”

The U.S. Forest Service reported that 159 U.S. personnel from various agencies were in Australia helping to fight the fires on January 6, 2020, including 87 from the Forest Service itself. The Forest Service also sent a tanker plane, according to the U.S. Embassy in Canberra. The U.S. sent an allotment of fire retardant, transported by Australian military aircraft, Australia’s Department of Defense reported.

The additional personnel “will continue to support Australia with the resources needed during this unprecedented fire situation,” U.S. Forest Service Fire Director Shawna Legarza said in a statement. (Pictured: A firefighter manages a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, on January 8, 2020, to contain a larger fire nearby.)

“Our focus remains on helping the people of Australia and keeping people safe in these unprecedented conditions,” U.S. Department of Interior Wildland Fire Deputy Director Craig Leff said in a statement.

This is the first time since 2010 that the United States dispatched firefighters to Australia, according to the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the work of nine U.S. agencies to manage wildfires. The fire personnel come from the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service.

Canada joined the United States in deploying firefighters to Australia.

“Since December 3, 2019, almost 100 Canadian fire management personnel have deployed to Australia, with more on the way soon,” Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a January 5, 2020, statement. “These Canadians are providing expertise and relief for the Australian staff that have been working extremely hard, and around the clock, since November.”

Many of the Canadians assist with transportation, logistics and monitoring the fires, AP reported, while Australia relies heavily on local community firefighters to battle the blazes.

Support from Australia’s Pacific island neighbors has also been strong.

New Zealand’s Defence Minister Ron Mark announced in a January 10, 2020, news release that the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) was deploying an environmental health team, a primary health care team and a military chaplain to support firefighting efforts by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in Victoria and New South Wales. The contingent joins three Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopters and crew, a C-130 aircraft, and two New Zealand Army Combat Engineer Sections. The total number of NZDF personnel sent to Australia was 112.

A pair of Singaporean CH-47 Chinook helicopters and crew were fighting the blazes, reported Australia’s Department of Defence, along with 100 light engineers from Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape announced on January 5, 2020, that 1,000 PNG Soldiers and firefighters were on standby, if needed. The small island nation of Vanuatu pledged U.S. $250,000 to aid fire victims.

“Defence has accepted the Republic of Fiji’s offer to provide a platoon of engineers, who will work alongside ADF personnel operating out of East Gippsland,” stated an Australian Defence Department spokesman. “Defence has received additional offers from other international partners and expects these to be progressively developed as need and circumstances evolve.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.