Firefighters back from Australia say experience will help prepare for future disasters
EDMONTON -- The first crew of firefighters from Canada sent to aid Australia returned on Jan. 9, one said his experience will help in fighting future disasters in Canada.
Morgan Kehr, Director of Wildfire Operations for Alberta went to Australia with 20 other Canadians, he was the liaison for the Canadian resources.
“I would make sure they were properly deployed for the qualifications or certifications and make sure their welfare was taken care of which it was. The Australians were very good to us,” said Kehr.
Over six-million hectares have burned since fires began in September, Kehr said they drove for hours through lands devastated by the fires.
“It was awe inspiring to see it spread over that geographic area like it was.”
Kehr and the other Canadians left on Dec. 03 and quickly went to work. They were deployed throughout the area to the north of Sydney.
Some of the strategies they used to fight the fires were ones Kehr had seen used in Alberta.
“A lot of aircraft, helicopters and bombing. Rudimentary basis of fighting fires are the same.”
He said the biggest difference was in how the fire acted, Australia’s environment being so different to Alberta’s that the Canadians didn’t always know what to expect.
“We were always relying on the local knowledge. How their fire behaviour is different, fuels and vegetation, how it spreads and rates of spread.”
Kehr said that the Canadian’s were always working with the locals, never alone, so they could ask questions and get support as needed.
“It was a good experience because we did learn lots, we reinforced some relationships, we reciprocated the help they’ve brought up in the past for us.”
Kehr thinks some of the techniques he learned in Australia could be helpful fighting fires in Alberta.
“I think we should take a look at how we do some back burning and indirect methods we do utilize.”
While the experience had some positive aspects for Kehr and his team, the devastating fires are worrying for one University of Alberta professor.
“The Australia wildfires are unprecedented. There’s never been a situation like this with so much area burned with such high intensity fires and incredible amount of smokes,” said Mike Flannigan, Professor of Wildland Fire at the U of A.
Wildfire season normally begins in February in Australia, Flannigan said climate change has a hand in the Australia fires.
“As we warm, we are going to see more fire. Not necessarily every year but on average hotter weather means more fire,” said Flannigan.
“This means more smoke and smoke is not great for your health and this is something that carries hundreds of thousands of kilometres.”
Flannigan said it is not only Australia being affected but Alberta as well, pointing out that our fire seasons have been starting earlier too.
“Officially it starts March 1 it used to be April 1.”
Despite that Flannigan points out there are steps that can be taken to try and reduce the risk of wildfires.
“Programs like FireSmart and have guidelines and principals for homeowners and community’s to make their communities more resistant to fire… last year Alberta did impose fire bans and off road fire bans and they were quite effective.”
The last contingent of the Canadians sent to Australia to fight the wildfires left on Jan. 19 and are expected to return in a month.
With files from CTV Edmonton's Nicole Weisberg