MNRF operations manager recalls past 5 weeks in Australia planning attack on wildfires

A fire manager with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry will finally be back home in Cochrane this weekend. Jamie Gaunt has been in New South Wales, Australia for the past five weeks, working as an operations officer in efforts to battle wildfires.

Jamie Gaunt, of Cochrane, has one more debrief in New South Wales before he flies home to Canada on Saturday

MNRF fire manager Jamie Gaunt of Cochrane, left Dec. 19 for New South Wales, Australia to work as an operations officer assigned to help with wildfires. He is is due to fly back to Canada on Saturday. (@ONforestfires Twitter)

Jamie Gaunt is looking forward to getting home to his family in Cochrane, Ont.

The fire operations tech with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry has spent the past five weeks helping battle wildfires in Australia.

Gaunt travelled to New South Wales on Dec. 19 to begin work as an operations officer assigned to help with wildfires there, working with incident controllers at the base, while firefighters were in the field.

"We call it a big War Room where decisions are made and I was specifically operations, so basically just running the resources, planning the day on where we were going to put crews, how we were going to attack the fire," he said.

His first four weeks were in Lithgow helping with the Gospers Mountain fire.

"It was the largest fire in Australia at the time, over 500,000 hectares," Gaunt said. "The fire actually surrounded that town"

The second deployment of fire managers from Canada left Dec. 19 to help with efforts in the New South Wales fire zone in Australia. (Jane Park)

Different fire system

Those first few days of helping his Aussie counterparts were overwhelming for Gaunt, as he tried to figure out that country's fire system.

"Fire is fire, it's kind of a global thing, but everybody kind of does things a little bit different," he said.

Australia's fire system is made up of volunteer firefighters, including 70,000 in New South Wales. They do not have wildland firefighters like the MNRF in Ontario.

"Trying to figure out where all these brigades are coming from and what their capabilities are. It's not like what I'm used to back home," Gaunt said.

Safety of fire crews is #1

As an operations officer he needed to understand the dry conditions in Australia so he didn't put any of the firefighters in harm's way.

"You really have to pay attention to the conditions and just ensure everybody's safety," he said.

"If I'm putting crews out on the fire line, knowing what those conditions are and how dry it is. You just really needed to be on your A-game and ensure that all these know, safety is number one."

Normally as an MNRF operations section chief in Ontario, Gaunt is able to get out in the field to view fires, but he wasn't able to do that in Australia.

"I did get out — don't get me wrong — it's just not as much as we typically do back home in Ontario," he said, adding that Down Under they relied on people who were out in the field to get details about fire size, movement and conditions.

"I did spend a lot of time in the office, but that's how they do stuff here, and it was fine cause you relied a lot on the folks that were out for the intel coming back."

When Gaunt did get out of the office, and exploring Australia during his days off, he saw plenty of kangaroos.

"They're everywhere. You just drive down a highway, any road." He also saw wombats and wallabies.

"It looks like an overgrown groundhog. They're huge," Gaunt said of wombats. "Just a big weird-looking thing."

Rain is helping

The fire situation is improving in Australia due to recent rain.

"They did receive a lot of precipitation here in New South Wales in the last 10 or 12 days, which has definitely helped with the firefighting efforts," he said.

"The rain is not going to put the fires out, but it will definitely help in getting some folks into some areas that possibly they couldn't get into before."

Countdown for home

Gaunt has one more debrief on Friday, before he flies back to Canada Saturday. Then he'll be reunited with his girlfriend and three children in Cochrane.

Gaunt has been in touch with his family regularly since leaving for Australia five weeks ago, but says the 16-hour time difference has been a challenge.

"They have a countdown of how many days until dad's coming home," he said, adding that his six-year old asked that the Christmas tree be left up until his return.

"I've been out here so long now that they're starting to get excited for me to get back home, and quite honestly so am I."

With files from Casey Stranges


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