British Columbia

Australian wildfire experts ready to help wherever needed

Crews able to integrate after just one day of briefings, says aviation director

Ash Kelly - CBC News

July 20, 2017

Wayne Rigg, Eain Mcrae and Tim McKern are fire operations specialists from the Country Fire Authority in Australia. They join 50 other experts who landed in Vancouver on Wednesday to relieve B.C. wildfire crews. (Country Fire Authority, Australia)

A team of 53 Australian wildfire management experts have arrived in British Columbia to relieve burned-out fire operations staff.

The group landed in Vancouver Wednesday, then spent Thursday in briefings in Chilliwack ahead of its deployment to the Interior over the weekend.

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"Fire is fire the world over. Our training, our skills and our knowledge in Australia are very similar to that of the B.C. firefighters," said Wayne Rigg, an aviation officer with Country Fire Authority in the Australian state of Victoria.

Speedy integration

The contingency includes air operations directors, incident commanders,  planning experts, a fire behaviour analyst and a number of other wildfire specialists officials hope will be able to jump in wherever they're needed. 

"We're able to come over and integrate very quickly within a half day or a day of briefing," he told Gloria Macarenko, guest host of CBC's On the Coast.

The 53-person group will be split into two, but it's not known yet what fires they will be sent to.

"We'll just go and slip in wherever the B.C. people need us to go and we're happy to do whatever jobs they want us to do to help out the community," said Rigg.

He said one thing the Australian crew can relate to is being under a state of emergency and evacuated.

"With so many communities displaced, we know what that's like. We experience that in Australia often," he said.

While Rigg estimates about 90 per cent of terminology and tactics are the same between the two countries, there are two major differences, he said.

In Australia, flammable eucalyptus forests can sometimes see wildfires jump distances of up to 20 kilometres, while B.C. forests are at a much higher elevation with steeper slopes, which can make it difficult to build fire barriers.

Australia's 'Black Saturday'

The relationship between Canadian and Australian fire crews goes back at least a decade, according to Rigg, who assisted on fires in B.C. in 2014 and 2015.

"We've had B.C. firefighters out in 2007 and during our 2009 Black Saturday fires which were our most catastrophic and worst fires in history," he said.

In those 2009 fires in Australia, 173 people were killed, 5,000 people injured and 2,029 homes were lost along with countless animals and livestock, according to reports by the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

Rigg said he's happy to be back in B.C. to return the favour and expects his team will offer a "well deserved break" for local crews.

"I betcha that once we go home from these fires, if we're in trouble this summer, B.C. would be out there at the drop of a hat," he said.

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast

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