Manitoba firefighters 'pretty darn proud' to help battle wildfires in Australia

Geoffrey Smith and fellow provincial wildfire program firefighter Trevor Tetrault are the fourth and fifth Manitobans to volunteer to go to Australia and help battle the wildfires that are causing unprecedented damage in the country.

A total of 5 firefighters from Manitoba have now been deployed to 2 Australian states

Manitoba Conservation and Climate firefighters Geoffrey Smith and Trevor Tetrault stand inside the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport Saturday morning. (Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

Right before he walked through airport security Saturday morning, Geoffrey Smith had a lot on his mind.

But one thing stood out: how many of his 13-year-old son's hockey games he'll have to miss while he's helping fight the wildfires spreading across Australia.

"That's going to kind of bother me," Smith said, standing in the departure area of the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. "But Australia is looking for help, and we're pretty happy just to step up."

Smith and fellow provincial wildfire program firefighter Trevor Tetrault are the fourth and fifth Manitobans to volunteer to go to Australia, and join the battle against unprecedented wildfires in the country.

Tetrault said they had to decide right away whether to offer to go when the wildfire service put out the call for volunteers.

"We had a very short period to make up our minds — I think kind of overnight," he said.

As of Friday, more than five million hectares have burned in what officials say is the worst fire season in Australia's history. Nineteen people have died and 21 are missing. Tens of thousands of others have been forced to flee their homes.

By Saturday evening in Australia, 3,600 firefighters were battling blazes across the southeastern state of New South Wales.

Crews monitor fires and begin back burns in the Australian state of Victoria on Jan. 2, 2020. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

While the Manitoba firefighters won't be on the front lines, they could be called on to assist the incident management team in command, aviation, planning, logistics or operations roles.

"I've been kind of anxious about the trip, not knowing really what we're getting ourselves into," said Tetrault. "We were told to be very flexible, but that's all."

Smith said because the fires have spread so much, it's hard to say where they might need to offer assistance once they arrive in New South Wales.

"We really don't know what fire we're going to end up on, because there are so many going on there," he said.

"We can end up [working] on a smaller, more manageable fire, or we can end up on one of the emergency-ranked fires that they're having right now."

'Definitely a challenge'

Smith said Manitoba has often had help from other countries to battle fires within the province, so it feels good for him to be able to return the favour when it's needed.

"We're pretty darn proud to be representing Manitoba and Canada over there," he said.

"The way the wildfire service works right across Canada is we often rely on our neighbours to help out. Manitoba has seen crews come in from right across Canada and the United States, and the Australians and Mexicans have been in Canada fighting fire before."

Smith said he and Tetrault have been getting advice about how to deal with the country's heat wave from some of the firefighters who are already in Australia.

"Some of our colleagues that are over there are telling us to make sure we stay hydrated," he said. "Adjusting to that kind of temperature is going to be definitely a challenge."

Firefighters Trevor Tetrault and Geoffrey Smith check in for their flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver Saturday morning. (Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

Smith and Tetrault — who will be deployed to Australia for 38 days — said they're a little anxious about the job.

But "it's the adventure of firefighting, I think, that attracts most people," adds Tetrault.

This deployment also includes 19 other Canadian firefighters — from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia — to help battle the wildfires in New South Wales, the province of Manitoba said in a news release on Friday.

It comes after three other deployments from Canada to help battle the wildfires: 21 personnel left for New South Wales on Dec. 2, 30 more left for New South Wales on Dec. 19, and 17 went to Queensland on Dec. 30, the province said.

With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press


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