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Lone Newfoundlander spends Christmas in Australia helping fight wildfires

NL firefighter now in Australia battling raging bush fires
WATCH: Newfoundland and Labrador firefighter Joe Russell is sharing his story as one of the Canadians working through the holidays in Australia, as the country continues to deal with record-breaking heat and devastating bushfires. Heather Yourex-West explains how the fires are now threatening Sydney's water supply.

While the rest of Canada wrapped up gifts and prepared for holiday feasts with family, Joe Russell from Corner Brook, N.L., tucked into Christmas dinner several time zones away from his wife and kids.

He is one of dozens of highly trained Canadian firefighting personnel who responded to a call for help from their Australian counterparts fighting devastating fires across the country.

“My wife and daughters were very supportive of me coming here for the opportunity to come and help,” Russell said from Australia.

READ MORE: A look at the Australian wildfires Canadian firefighters are helping to battle

He’s also the only Canadian from Newfoundland and Labrador there. With a deployment of 38 days, he is expected to return by the end of January.

“I was the only one available (for) the role that they were looking for,” Russell said in an interview with Global News on Friday.

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Russell, a wildfire training specialist from Newfoundland’s Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, arrived in Australia just four days before Christmas and was whisked away to Lithgow, a city in New South Wales, located 140 kilometres west of Sydney.

Canadian fire training specialist helping battle wildfires in Australia
Canadian fire training specialist helping battle wildfires in Australia
A bushfire burns near the Lithgow Correctional Centre compound in Marrangaroo, New South Wales, Australia on Dec. 19, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media.
A bushfire burns near the Lithgow Correctional Centre compound in Marrangaroo, New South Wales, Australia on Dec. 19, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Department of Justice New South Wales (NSW) /via REUTERS

His role? Working with the Lithgow Fire Control Centre as a logistics support officer.

“Logistics deals with everything in support of fire (fighting) with regards to food and lunches and meals for all the firefighters and incident management team personnel, as well as securing lodging for everyone,” he said.

West Kelowna’s Valhalla Helicopters helping Australia amid fires
West Kelowna’s Valhalla Helicopters helping Australia amid fires

“Every day, people are coming and going, there’s always different numbers. So it’s a juggling act making sure that everybody has proper meals and lodging and, of course, any support of the incident in regards to equipment and things like that.”

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Fires have ravaged several Australian states in recent weeks, with eight deaths connected to the blazes, including two volunteer firefighters. 

Bushfires have destroyed more than four million hectares — more than the terrain burned by California fires earlier in 2019.

READ MORE: Winnipeg-based centre coordinating deployment of Canadians fighting Australia wildfires

As of Friday, while intense bushfires surrounded the capital, Australian officials told reporters they were focusing on protecting water plants, pumping stations, pipes and other infrastructure.

Canada has mutual aid agreements with Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Mexico and South Africa, and has received firefighting assistance in the past.

Canada is just returning the favour in sending resources down to Australia, and they’ve expressed interest for needing help with management of their fires,” Russell said. 

A Dec. 20, 2019 news release by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador explains that the deployments “come at no expense” to the province since related costs are covered under the agreement between the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre and Australian officials.

Dealing with a fire Down Under is not that different from operations back home, he said. They run 13-hour days, book-ended by briefings every morning and evening.

Considering the dry conditions, he anticipates a long summer ahead for Australian authorities battling the flames.

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“Trees are burning very, very hot and producing a lot of embers,” Russell said.

READ MORE: At least 68 Canadians to give up holidays at home, head to Australia to battle wildfires

It’s also his first time ever in Australia. Away from home, he had a Christmas lunch with others in his deployment and watched his kids open presents via FaceTime on Christmas Eve.

Despite the grave nature of his visit, Russell also managed to enjoy the sight of kangaroos darting around his temporary workplace.

“They’re running around everywhere behind the fire centre and early in the morning,” he said with a smile. “It’s kind of cute.”

With files by Reuters