Beleaguered firefighters across the U.S. are being pushed to their limits battling wildfires that have broken out in rapid succession across the West. They’ll soon get reinforcements – from the other side of the globe.
Nearly 150 specialists from Australia and New Zealand are being deployed this weekend to provide assistance to American firefighters, the National Interagency Fire Center said Tuesday. The 146 firefighters are veterans with experience in fire management and strategy, and will help firefighting units around the country, NIFC spokeswoman Carrie Bilbao said.
The U.S. request for international aid was triggered when the NIFC reached “preparedness level five” on July 27, Bilbao said, signifying that the vast majority of American firefighting units are occupied fighting wildfires.
It means the U.S. is “experiencing large, complex wildfire incidents nationally, and having the potential to exhaust all our resources,” Bilbao said. Level five, the highest level, “gives us the knowledge that we need to call out for more resources, like Australia, or even military support.”
More than 26,000 people are engaged in wildland firefighting activities across the nation, the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday. There are at least 13,000 firefighters battling to control the 19 active blazes across California, according to the Associated Press.
Bilbao said 4.7 million acres have burned across the U.S. this year, down from 5.4 million by this time last year, but higher than the 10-year average of 3.7 million acres. It’s currently winter in Australia, so it’s a “good time to bring them up,” Bilbao said.
The U.S. and Australia have cooperated in firefighting efforts in years past, but this is the first time firefighters from the state of South Australia are joining the effort, according to Dan Hamilton, a spokesman for the South Australia Country Fire Service.
Hamilton said the three people that South Australia is sending to join the fight are experts who are well-versed in containing fires across various types of terrain.
“The guys that we are sending have a lot of experience in managing these types of fires and how to approach them. They’re skilled in understanding the fire behavior,” he said. “They will be able to certainly provide pretty good assistance.”
The Aussies and Kiwis are on a 42-day deployment, Hamilton said, and will be on the front lines of the fires, either fighting blazes themselves or helping with strategy. The contingent will leave Friday from Sydney, Hamilton said, and fly to Boise, the headquarters of the NIFC.
There, Bilbao said, they’ll go through several days of training to get up-to-speed on American firefighting, and will then be deployed around the country. She’s not sure yet where the international firefighters will be sent, but knows California, Oregon and Washington all need additional support.