Calgary

Australian living in Alberta struggles, watching wildfire destruction from afar

Australians living in southern Alberta are paying close attention as the fires burn near their homes a world away.

Alberta fires crews deployed to help battle bushfires half a world away

A helicopter tackles a wildfire in East Gippsland, in Australia's Victoria state, on Dec. 30. (State Government of Victoria)

Ben Wells had seen the news headlines from back home — fires burning across Australia — but the gravity of the situation didn't really strike him until his parents were forced to flee several times under numerous evacuation orders during the holidays.

"Mom was struggling a little bit, she was really strong through it. Obviously it's not the best to see people get really emotional when you're on the other side of the world. It's a bit hard," Wells said in an interview Thursday.

Wells has been living in Canada for almost two years, and he's been in Canmore, Alta., since August. His parents live just southeast of the southern city of Melbourne. For 15 years, his family has always travelled for the holidays to the town of Mallacoota, Victoria, which borders the state of New South Wales. 

Before his parents were forced to flee, leaving their camper and belongings behind, he video-chatted with his parents and watched as ash fell from the sky — 7 a.m. could be mistaken for the darkness of night.

While the destruction is upsetting and unfortunate, Wells said he's also not terribly surprised. When he was last home, signs of drought were everywhere. 

"Everything was just brown. There was no water. Everything was dead. No rain. So, to be honest, you could see it coming because the conditions were so bad before we left. It's very sad to see how much damage [has been done] in the last two months. Yeah, very scary," he said.

This image shows the locations of ongoing wildfires in southeastern Australia as of Jan. 2.

More than 200 fires are burning across New South Wales and Victoria. Eight people, including volunteer firefighters, have died in the fires since Monday, bringing the death toll so far to 17. About five million hectares of land have burned and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.

Alberta is sending help

Alberta fire specialists — in concert with teams from across the country, co-ordinated through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre — have been deploying to Australia since early December with new contingents continuing to leave this week and into next.

Morgan Kehr is the senior representative of the Canadian agency and is based in Edmonton. He landed in New South Wales on Dec. 5 for a 38-day deployment with 19 other Canadians. Streams of other specialists, mostly working in logistics support roles, have come in since.

The first team that arrived in early December will be replaced by the incoming team, which is departing Alberta next Monday.

Canadians have been bolstering the work of the Australian volunteer fire brigades and other domestic fire service resources.

"Luckily, none of our people are on the front lines in the flames. They're all working out of fire control centres, scattered around New South Wales. So they're in safe locations," Kehr said.

Kehr said he's been impressed by the hard work of the firefighting crews. 

"It's amazing to see and it's hard for us to wrap our heads around the amount of volunteer effort. New South Wales has roughly 70,000 volunteers they can draw on, and they rotate those in and out on a daily/weekly basis, trying to keep them fresh. And the staff in the incident management teams are obviously exhausted, and that's why we're here," Kehr said.

Australia has had fires raging since September, and the season is expected to last until February.

Wells, watching from half a world away, has nothing but praise for the firefighters. 

"So, hats off to our [firefighters] and even your [firefighters] who've gone across and helped," he said. "That's awesome stuff. I'm happy that both our countries have that sort of relationship that people would leave their families over Christmas and New Year's to go to Australia and help us out."

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