US firefighters adapt and battle Australia’s bush fires
OVENS, Australia — It was a rare victory for the seasoned Americans battling flames Down Under.
Beneath a green eucalyptus canopy in the country’s Australian Alps, the continent’s tallest mountain range dividing New South Wales and Victoria, some of America’s most versatile firefighters, mostly from Southern California, are laboring to help the Australians gain the upper hand against their worst fire season ever.
The work, up until Saturday afternoon, had not always been fruitful for these two dozen firefighters, nearly all of them from the Angeles National Forest. Weekly lightning storms have sparked new fires beyond their defensive positions, and even some older fires have spread so quickly they have outrun crews finishing containment lines.
But that afternoon, word crackled over the radio that a containment line they’d dug days before had held up, stopping another blaze’s progress. It was their first success since arriving in Australia on Jan. 8.
“We finally got a win,” said firefighter Benjamin Covault, 40, from McCall, Idaho. “It’s been kicking everyone’s ass.”
“You want the work to be meaningful, but these are huge fires we’re talking about,” said Justine Gude, one of 20 Angeles firefighters in Australia for a monthlong deployment. “You try to take a bite out of it and if it doesn’t work, you pull back and you take another bite. We’re used to it.”
More than 170 U.S. firefighters are in Australia, a country halfway around the world that some of them had never visited. Helping their Aussie counterparts, they have been adjusting to a unique firefighting culture, unusual lingo and landscapes that, while similar in some respects, differ from those of the American West.
Here in the Alpine National Park near Mount Buffalo, the ground is softer and the shallow-rooted eucalyptus generally are heavier and burn hotter than the conifers and oaks of the Sierra Nevada, creating a tree-fall danger that’s unpredictable and potentially lethal. As crews carve their way through dead standing trees, venomous ants jump onto their wrists and bite while spiders lower themselves onto their backs.
“Crazy spiders, man, big spiders the size of your hand. Big ants, bullet ants and jumping jacks, ‘hoppers,’ they call ’em,” said Travis Braten, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter based in Shoshone, Wyo., who was working with the Californians over the weekend. “Some guys have seen snakes. I haven’t seen any, which is just fine with me. Sounds like everything is poisonous.”
While these firefighters will bring home anecdotes about everyday oddities — lounging koalas, kangaroos standing by the roadside, brightly colored birds and huge insects — they have been doing the manual labor that comes with an “arduous crew” label, which is how the Angeles National Forest men and women have been categorized while in Australia.
It’s the kind of muscle-aching work that firefighters grind through early in their career until they become more specialized. But because resources are stretched razor-thin in Australia, with so many fires at once, the Forest Service sent over hotshots and veteran firefighters who usually lead their own teams back home and can do it all.
“They say it takes a village, where it takes all types to make a successful hand crew,” Gude said, as she stained her hands and nail-polish black with grit, dirt and oil while cleaning a chainsaw. “You need the funny guy, you need the smart guys, you need the strong guys.”