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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Wildfire crews head Down Under

Massive blazes offer learning opportunity

Dozens of wildfire specialists from around the West, including a soil erosion expert from Moscow, Idaho, have headed to Australia to help combat massive fires.

Multiple blazes have charred more than a million acres in southern Australia, killing about 200 people and leaving 7,000 homeless. The burned area includes the watershed that provides drinking water to metropolitan Melbourne, home to 3.8 million people.

“They’ve got the magic, ugly combination of 60 mph winds and 120-degree temperatures,” said Rose Davis, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Missoula.

The firefighters could work up to 14 days without a break. But there wasn’t a shortage of people offering to fill the 60 spots, Davis said.

Many look forward to expanding their wildfire experience. They’ll be working in grasslands and forests of eucalyptus – sap-laden trees that are highly flammable. “They can literally explode,” Davis said.

U.S. crews are also returning a favor to a friend and ally. Firefighters from Australia and New Zealand helped battle blazes in Western Montana during the summer of 2003. Three years later, more than 100 Australians worked fire lines in Oregon and California.

U.S. firefighters also traveled to Australia in 2007 to fight blazes in the state of Victoria, the area that needs help now.

“Our fire seasons are opposite of each other, so we have people available to send,” said Steve Kratville, a spokesman for the Forest Service’s Northern Rockies region.

This year, Australian officials requested 60 U.S. wildfire specialists. They wanted one firefighting crew, plus several teams of experts in post-fire restoration. Peter Robichaud, who does modeling of soil erosion after wildfires for the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Moscow, is part of the restoration team. Other experts included botanists, hydrologists and soil scientists. They’ll help with planting and other soil-stabilization efforts before the winter rains begin.

“In slang terms, they’ve got to work on keeping the dirt on the mountain,” Davis said.

The crews left Saturday. They’ll stay for just over a month. Their wages and travel costs are paid by the Australian government, just as the U.S. government picks up the tab for foreign firefighters working here.

The U.S. crew was scheduled to head for the field after a two-day orientation. Because the U.S. and Australia use nearly identical organizational structures for managing large fires, it’s easy for the firefighters to get up to speed, Kratville said.

And “you don’t have to worry about grizzlies” in Australia, added Rick Floch, the Bitterroot National Forest’s fire management officer in Hamilton, Mont.

Two years ago, Floch fought fires and worked on rehabilitation efforts in Victoria. He noted the absence of large predators and was amused by “Watch for kangaroo” signs on roadways that closely resembled “Watch for deer” signs on U.S. roads.

The resilience of the fast-growing Australian forests also surprised him.

Eucalyptus trees are highly adapted to fire and regenerate quickly, Floch said. “The whole forest can look black and obliterated, but within a few weeks, you’ll usually start to see some green shoots.”

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