Ross returns from North American fire front

News article |

It’s been a busy fire season in the northern hemisphere, and two DEW firefighters went to Canada and the United States to give them a hand. Our Lower South East District Manager Ross Anderson shares the story of his deployment in his own words….

I was based at the Cougar Creek fire in northern Washington for two 14-day shifts. This fire was in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest managed by the US Forest Service and was burning in mixed pine forest and open woodland in very steep terrain.

For the first 2 weeks I was the Division Supervisor for Kilo Division on the north-eastern side of the fire. We had crews undertaking direct attacks on the fire, preparing control lines, back burning and burning out internal pockets of vegetation. I was also responsible for mentoring a trainee and assessing his performance against national standards; luckily he was highly skilled and really helped me transition into the role.

I camped in a tent for the entire 4 week period. I was so tired that it was easy enough to sleep, apart from one night when we had 80 kilometre an hour gully winds, which threatened to blow tents away. I had to lay spread-eagled just to hold the tent down. The food was fine, it was camp food and there was plenty of it but it was great to get back for some home cooking. I don’t reckon I’ve ever eaten so many potatoes or so much peanut butter in my life!

Shift lengths were a challenge and it was really important to try and manage your fatigue as well as that of the crews. Generally, shifts were planned for up to 16 hours which doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleep when you need to eat dinner, shower, have breakfast and get to a briefing.

After a 2-day break I returned to the fire ground as a Task Force Leader responsible for establishing fall back lines and inventorying the many kilometres of hose and sprinklers that were providing protection to over a hundred houses in our division. As a result of the effort at the Cougar Creek fire no built assets were lost despite the fire moving through the Entiat Valley where there were a lot of vulnerable houses and infrastructure.

For the final week I was allocated to the newly-established Repair Division, tasked with rehabilitating control lines and roads damaged by vehicles during the fire fight. It was great to see that rehabilitation of the fire ground was a priority, and that it was put into action before crews left the fire.

The main highlights for me were working with a group of passionate and skilled people from a diverse range of backgrounds. One of the crews in my division were training to be a ‘Hot Shot’ crew and even brought their own drones which we used regularly to patrol hot spots with both infrared and real colour imagery. With this technology we could pinpoint hot spots around 2 centimetres in diameter and reduce the risk to crews that would have otherwise had to walk for long periods of time in difficult terrain when the drone could give us the necessary information within minutes.

Working with Americans in the field took some thought as they can find it difficult to understand us. Reading the crowd during a briefing was important, as they were too polite to tell you they had no idea what you were talking about. Slang and terminology differences caused a lot of laughs on both sides. When one of the fire crew was sick and I asked her how crook she was, she thought I was calling her a criminal!

More than 30,000 firefighters were deployed to these wildfires in the USA, but in spite of the large numbers they were in need of more leaders and people to fulfil specialist roles. I was one of a number of Australians given positions of responsibility, and we took that very seriously. As visitors we were gratefully received and integrated into the team. There was a lot of positivity from fire personnel as well as members of the public and this appreciation made our efforts worthwhile.

- Lower South East District Manager, Ross Anderson

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