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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Firefighters take a trip Down Under

Dozens of firefighters from across the West, including a grandmother from the Idaho Panhandle, are flying to Australia today to help fight a series of massive wildfires.

Federal fire managers say they had no problems finding volunteers for the mission. Not only are firefighters eager to escape the cold, but they are also happy to repay a longtime friend – Australia has sent its firefighters to the American West during three of the past six fire seasons, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

“They helped us during difficult times,” said Lyle Carlile, the center’s fire director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “We’re pleased that we have the chance to return the favor.”

The last time U.S. crews went to Australia was in 2003, when 36 were sent. The current contingent of 107, including three from Washington and 13 from Idaho, is believed to be the largest ever, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Interagency Fire Center. About the same number of firefighters from New Zealand and Australia worked in the U.S. last summer.

The team leaving today includes 40 highly trained Type I firefighters, plus 67 supervisors and support specialists. Australia will pay their wages and travel expenses, just as the United States covers the cost of foreign firefighters coming here. The team will be gone for a month.

Barbara Montgomery, a computer analyst from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ St. Joe Ranger District, will help the Australians track and coordinate firefighters on the ground. She learned Tuesday she would be going.

“I could have turned it down, but my husband just looked at me and said, ‘You are absolutely crazy if you don’t accept this assignment. It’s warm there,’ ” said Montgomery, a grandmother with nearly 30 years experience working for the Forest Service. “It was below zero when they called, and I just love the warm weather.”

Montgomery said she’s a bit nervous about the size of the fires – 2.6 million acres, or about 20 percent of Australia’s state of Victoria, has burned in recent weeks – but she is excited by the prospect of working alongside Australians again. She worked with Australians this summer on the Derby Fire in Montana.

“They’re wonderful; they are top-notch,” she said.

Once firefighters arrive, they will be given at least two days of training, including a critical safety lesson: how to drive on the left side of the road.

Grant Beebe, a firefighter crew boss from Boise who fought fires in Australia in 2003, said both countries use the same organizational structure of managing large-scale firefighting efforts. This makes it easy to hit the ground running.

Apart from driving, the other major difference is fire fuel type, Beebe said. In Australia, the forests are made up of species of eucalyptus trees. Each species burns a bit differently, especially in comparison to the evergreen trees of the American West. One type of eucalyptus has bark that can send burning embers upwards of 20 miles from the fireline, Beebe said.

Australians also take a different approach to protecting isolated homes in rural areas, Beebe said. “They take more responsibility for their property. There really isn’t the tendency to flee like there is in the U.S. That’s both a positive and a negative.”

Beebe won’t be going on this trip – more than enough people have volunteered.

“I hate to say we had a good time, but I can’t think of another word,” he said, describing his time there in 2003. “They were incredibly appreciative of us coming over. We were treated absolutely first class. … The Australians are incredible. They’ve got a great attitude. They’re in dire circumstances, but they’ve got a great chin-up attitude.”

According to media accounts from Australia, the fires are burning out of control because of temperatures topping 100 degrees and nearly a decade of drought. Most of the fires are burning east and northwest of Melbourne. One of the biggest fires has already blackened 1.6 million acres.

Beebe said firefighters from the United States are ready to do what they can. Although some smaller fires are burning now in Florida and the Southeast, the biggest blazes here usually don’t start until late April in the Southwest.

“It’s our down season,” he explained. “There are a bunch of American firefighters who are just itching to have something to do.”