For the first time since 2010, the federal government is sending U.S. firefighters — including some from California — to help combat Australia’s wildfires, which have burned about 12.35 million acres of land and killed at least 17 people.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center — the government agency that is coordinating the deployment of firefighters from the U.S. — roughly 100 firefighters have been been sent to Australia over the last four weeks, with 50 to 60 more planned to be dispatched Monday. At least sixteen of those firefighters have been sent from California, where fires scorched thousands of acres across the state throughout the fall.
Canada is also sending firefighters to Australia for the first time. Stephen Tulle, duty officer with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, told CBC that a group of about 36 is assisting.
In November, the U.S. fire center sent a liaison to Australia to work with counterparts there on the U.S. resources needed to help battle the growing blazes. Working in coordination with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. center issued a sign-up document for firefighters interested in being dispatched.
Once those firefighters were vetted and cleared to travel internationally, groups began 30-day deployments on Dec. 5. The second group left Dec. 19 and a third left Monday. A fourth group will leave Saturday, and another this Monday. The firefighters who volunteered for the assignment are on paid status earning their normal salary, fire center public affairs officer Kari Cobb said.
Firefighting techniques vary in each state. Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that firefighters dispatched to Australia would need “orientation and operational training prior to going out on the line.”
The exchange of fire resources is made through an agreement between the U.S. Department of the Interior and Emergency Management Australia.
“It works really well because Australia has a different fire season than we do in the United States,” Cobb said.
In August 2018, Australia and New Zealand sent roughly 140 firefighters to the U.S. for nearly 30 days. Cobb said that the group was stationed in Northern California, Washington and Oregon.
At least 17 people have died and roughly 1,400 homes have been destroyed since the fires started in Australia. On Tuesday morning, 4,000 people in the coastal town of Mallacoota fled to the shore as winds pushed flames toward their homes.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was confronted with criticism and jeers during a visit to Cobargo from residents who believe that too little is being done to mitigate a destruction that prompted New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian to declare a seven-day state of emergency, granting fire officials more authority. It’s the third state of emergency for New South Wales in the last two months.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.