Manitoba firefighters return home after battling infernos in Australia

Gerry Rosset and Andrew Prokopchuk, who were stationed about 200 kilometres south of Sydney for 38 days, were back in Winnipeg on Thursday, where they said the behaviour of the wildfires ranged from moderate 'to almost what they call catastrophic behaviour.'

Fires have burned more than 14.7 million acres, an area larger than the entire country of Croatia

Manitoba Conservation officer Andrew Prokopchuk hugs his wife, Patti Prokopchuk, after returning home to Manitoba Thursday. He and fellow Manitoba Conservation officer Gerry Rosset spent 38 days in Australia. (Amelie David/CBC)

Two firefighters from Manitoba have come home after helping combat the devastating blazes that have been raging across Australia for the past 38 days.

Manitoba Conservation officers Gerry Rosset and Andrew Prokopchuk were stationed about 200 kilometres south of Sydney. Southeastern Australia has been hit particularly hard by this fire season, which officials have described as the worst on record.

The fire behaviour — a reference to the way a fire develops and spreads — "ranged from moderate behaviour to almost what they call catastrophic behaviour," Rosset told reporters after landing in Winnipeg Thursday.

"There was quite a bit of fire movement in our second deployment in Australia … and it was probably more so than I'd seen in any other incidence that I've been on."

Generally, the Canadian firefighters are playing more of a managerial role, helping organize firefighting efforts, as opposed to being on the front lines. Regardless, Prokopchuk said "I'm just glad we don't get fires like that."

The view from the office where Prokopchuk and Rosset were stationed in New South Wales, in southeastern Australia. (Submitted by Andrew Prokopchuk)

Australian officials he worked with told him the air quality where they were stationed was so poor, breathing it in was like smoking 50 cigarettes a day, Prokopchuk told CBC News.

Drought is one of the main challenges in combating the blazes, he said.

"They've had two years without any substantial rain at all," he said. "And if you get a windy day … I've seen some pretty crazy stuff."

There is also a large amount of fire fuel in the region, Rosset said.

Thousands of firefighters have battled the flames in Australia this season, which have left 25 people dead, Australian officials say — including three firefighters. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, and it's estimated hundreds of millions of animals have died as well.

More than 14.7 million acres have burned in total — an area larger than the entire country of Croatia.

"We've spoken to a lot of people that have lost farms, buildings, houses, so it really affects people hard," Prokopchuk said. "Any place we'd go people wanted to hug us, there's tears. [Canadian firefighters] were well received."

He added that the conditions are not forecasted to get any better, saying that another hot and dry summer is expected in the region.

"They've got a battle ahead of themselves yet."

Rosset said they'd go again if they had to.

Prokopchuk, who is from the Beausejour area, and Rosset, from Carberry, get the week to rest before going back to their regular jobs on Monday.

Andrew Prokopchuk and his wife Patti share a kiss on the Hug Rug at the Winnipeg airport. (Marjorie Dawhos/CBC)

As nerve-racking as it was to have her husband go down to help firefighters, Patti Prokopchuk told CBC News that she ultimately encouraged him to do so.

"It was the chance of a life time, and to help another country that was in desperate need of help," she said.

"I'm very grateful that he's come back healthy and we can celebrate our holidays now that he's back home," she said.

With files from Amelie David and Marjorie Dowhos


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