Parks Canada officials who were dispatched to help fight Australia’s wildfires say they hope the experience will serve as a knowledge exchange that will assist in responding to fires in this country.
Dozens of Canadian firefighters travelled to Australia in December to assist with a crisis that has left more than two dozen people dead and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
Two experts with Parks Canada – Jane Park, a fire and vegetation specialist at Banff National Park, and Spencer Verdiel, a fire management officer at Mount Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park – shared their experiences on Thursday.
Ms. Park said it was an opportunity for firefighters from the northern and southern hemispheres to learn from one another, which left them with new tools for the “old toolbox."
“I think they appreciated what we brought to the table as much as we appreciated what they did for us,” she said.
In particular, the Canadians said they were impressed with Australian efficiency in reporting the status of fires to communities near fire lines, as well as situational awareness on the ground.
For example, Mr. Verdiel says the Australian firefighters use a remote sensing tool called "line scans.” They fly around randomly throughout the day, cutting through smoke, to determine the current whereabouts of fire perimeters. This allows firefighters to shift tactics to best tackle the fires.
Ms. Park and Mr. Verdiel say they plan to discuss the new strategies they learned about in Australia with their agency to assess whether they can be integrated in Canada.
They said Australian firefighters were very receptive to new suggestions. For example, in Western Canada, it’s common to use rain gauges to keep track of rainfall in a particular area.
While they were in Australia, Ms. Park was a lead planning officer. She dealt with the strategic planning by analyzing fire behaviour, collecting intelligence and predicting where the fire would spread. She strategized with Mr. Verdiel who was an operations officer. He managed the staff in the field and communicated with divisional commanders.
When Ms. Park and Mr. Verdiel were first asked to travel to Australia, they both said it was a fairly easy decision to make, given the situation. After asking family if they were comfortable with it, both of them agreed to the opportunity.
The fire season occurred over the December holidays, so the Canadian firefighters who provided extra hands also gave Australian firefighters a chance to spend time with their families.
Mr. Verdiel said that he was on board from the beginning because Australia has sent over its own firefighters to help Western Canada in previous years when the wildfires in B.C. and Alberta were at their worst.
Western Canadian wildfire seasons have been especially active in recent years, which experts are warning is a new normal due to climate change.
In 2017, B.C. had its worst recorded fire season to date, with 1,353 fires reported. In 2018, the record was immediately beat, with 2,117 fires reported that year.
In Alberta, memories are still fresh from the 2016 fire that forced the entire community of Fort McMurray to be evacuated and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
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