Drop bears and angry kangaroos: Albertans fight fires in Australia

When Rick Harrison arrived in Australia to fight wildfires, he was repeatedly warned about a dangerous, mythical creature lurking in the bush — drop bears.

A five-year drought had turned the country's bushlands into a dust bowl

Fire crews work to protect properties as wildfire approaches in Mangrove Mountain, Australia, in December 2019. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts via Reuters)

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

When Rick Harrison arrived in Australia to fight wildfires, he was repeatedly warned about a dangerous creature lurking in the bush — drop bears.

"The Australians like to kid around and they made that known," Harrison recalled with a chuckle. 

"In their folklore, there is something called a 'drop bear' and, basically, a drop bear is a koala with fangs and they come and attack you." 

While Harrison was never duped by the tales his fellow firefighters told about drop bears, he did fall for another one of their tricks and almost got sucker-punched at a sanctuary for kangaroos, Australia's national animal.

"The firefighters, they were always talking about kangaroos, they said that they liked to be scratched on their belly and behind their legs," said Harrison.

"The little ones, they were fine with it. The big male was not happy. It's almost like he put up his hands to start fighting." 

And while drop bears are nothing more than a fantasy fabricated to terrify unsuspecting tourists — and the kangaroo never landed a punch — the dangers of fighting fires in Australia were real.

Alberta wildfire technologist Rick Harrison arrived in Australia in December 2019 as part of a contingent of wildfire specialists and firefighters. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Harrison, an Alberta government wildfire technologist with more than 30 years' experience fighting fires, arrived in December 2019 with a contingent of firefighters and wildfire management specialists.

Responding to an official call for assistance from Australian authorities, they became the first group of Canadian firefighters ever sent to the country.

The crews were first sent to Brisbane, where fires were burning along Australia's eastern coast, before being redeployed to New South Wales.

The landscape was hostile, Harrison said. 

"It was very thick, grey, dark smoke," Harrison said in an interview with CBC podcast World on Fire.

"It's like you're in a sauna."

Having only just left behind the Edmonton winter, the pounding sun came as a shock. 

It reminded Harrison of his first season as a ranger when fires burning around Edson, Whitecourt and Slave Lake turned the forests of northern Alberta into a "war zone."

A five-year drought had turned Australia's bushlands into a dust bowl. 

An early and devastating start to the summer wildfires made the season the worst on record.

Helped by unprecedented heat and dryness, an estimated 50 million acres burned. Nearly 6,000 homes and other structures were destroyed and at least 34 people were killed. 

"Seeing the intensity and the landscape the fire was burning on, it was completely different than what we deal with back at home — even the wind directions, they were totally different. 

"There was no water in the creeks, no water in the rivers," Harrison said. "The grass was almost disappearing and all you were seeing was soil."

The Canadian contingent had been called to help with logistics, manage some of the aerial attacks and provide relief to local firefighters who had been on the front lines for weeks.

'A new kind of hot'

When Jesse Baron flew into the country all he could see was smoke — clouds of cinder that would dangerously obscure a pilot's vision. 

And then there was the heat. In 20 years of fighting fires, he had never felt anything like it.   

"We were flying around and it was 47 degrees," said Baron, an air attack officer with the Alberta government. 

"Really hot, the kind of heat that I'm not used to being from Alberta. I mean, I grew up in Medicine Hat. It gets hot there but 47 C is a new kind of hot.

"It's so dry, you sweat, you're drenched and then it evaporates so fast."

Jesse Baron, an air attack officer with the Alberta government, flew across Australia's smoke-filled skies as the country was ravaged by record drought and fire. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Fires were raging in three states across the country and Baron was called to the alpine resort town of Bright to relieve the weary local crews. 

By the time they arrived in January, the firefight had already dragged on for nearly two months. 

"Everybody was being called on to work down there. It was a heavy workload for them and they had been doing it for a while," Baron said. 

"There were a lot of tired faces walking around." 

While Harrison travelled the country providing logistical support, Baron spent most of his time fighting the fire from the skies. 

Baron's crew helped give local wildlife had a fighting chance at survival, dropping buckets of food from their helicopters onto the singed landscape. 

The food drop turned out to be the most memorable moment of the trip, Baron said. 

"They were dropping carrots to feed the pygmy possums and the wombats," he said. "And they set up trail cameras at these drop sites.

"We're looking at the camera and all of sudden this kangaroo wanders on-screen and he lays down on the pile of carrots. He kind of lazily eats a couple and takes a bit of a nap.

"It was pretty fun to see. You know, it's a laid-back culture, the people are a little bit more laid back, but the wildlife — I mean, it was a huge wildfire and he just kind of hops in, has a little nap, eats his carrots and carries on with his day." 

An aerial view of bushfires burning south of Canberra, Australia, in January 2020. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It was that Australian sensibility Baron will remember most. The experience, he said, is a reminder of the importance of cross-border co-operation in the fight against wildfires —  a relationship now threatened by travel restrictions and health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I've been to Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and our neighbours in B.C. and the Territories. We help each other often and there is a relationship there.

"I think it highlights that you really can't do it alone. Inevitably, you can't always be prepared for those worst days so the sharing is an important part of it."

Fire and rescue personnel watch a bushfire as it burns near homes on the outskirts of Bilpin, a town 90 kilometres northwest of Sydney, in December 2019. (David Gray/Getty Images)

As the fire season grows longer and more intense in countries around the world, these relationships will become even more critical, Harrison said. 

"We are a very small community worldwide and it's great to build relationships whether we're in Canada, the United States or Australia.

"How we fight fire has changed. We prepare differently now. How we attack those fires is different. Bringing in knowledge from other agencies helps us learn and helps us fight fire better, more efficiently." 


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Adrienne Lamb, Pippa Reed


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