‘We stand with the people of Australia’: US firefighters join effort to combat devastating blazes
Scores of U.S. firefighters are joining the international effort to combat Australian bushfires that have killed at least 25 people and destroyed 2,000 homes since September.
The Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center said it has assigned at least 83 fire personnel to Australia, including 37 in New South Wales and 44 in neighboring Victoria. It’s the first time in a decade a major contingent of U.S. firefighters has been pressed into emergency service Down Under.
More U.S. help is on the way. About 70 firefighters from Canada and the U.S. are expected to arrive Wednesday. And California’s Cal Fire, which has received aid from Australian firefighters to combat devastating fires in California in recent years, said it is closely monitoring the situation in southeast Australia and will send firefighters if needed.
“Having experienced firsthand the devastation that wildfires can create, we share your concern about the wildfires currently ravaging Australia,” the agency said in a statement. “We stand with the people of Australia who have supported us during our catastrophic wildfires.”
Record heat and drought conspired to ignite almost 24,000 square miles of land, about the size of West Virginia. The fires began months ahead of the normal December to March fire season – summer in Australia.
A woodchip mill burnt by bushfires is seen as smoke rises in Quaama in Australia's New South Wales state on January 6, 2020. (Photo: SAEED KHAN, AFP via Getty Images)
Relatively mild conditions and light rain that graced the region Monday was encouraging but provided little actual assistance, authorities warned.
“With the more benign weather conditions, it presents some wonderful relief for everybody, the firefighters, the emergency services personnel, but also the communities affected by these fires,” said Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Lisa Neville, emergency services minister in Victoria, south of New South Wales, says it would take 8 inches of rain over a short period of time to snuff the blazes sweeping across southeastern Australia. Fitzsimmons emphasized that the weather break will do little to douse the more than 130 fires burning in his state.
“It also presents some real challenges when it comes to implementing tactical and strategic back-burns and other techniques to try and bring these fires under control,” Fitzsimmons said.
The Department of Home Affairs, which is coordinating the response to the bushfire crisis, even told staff to stay home Monday because of poor air quality in the capital of Canberra from smoke.
The forecast calls for the rain to end soon, and higher temperatures and winds will roll into the region later in the week. Fire Service spokesman Greg Allan said thousands of firefighters were racing to beat the heat, strengthening containment lines to slow the spread of large fires and protect homes and businesses.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said difficult terrain and dangerous conditions were slowing access to some fire-affected areas. Hundreds more homes could be added to the list of those destroyed in coming days, she said.
“Priority today and over next few days is to turbocharge the recovery process,” she said. “Providing essential supplies and power, clearing local roads and ongoing support to those who have lost their homes.”
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