77 Canadians on their way to help Australia as wildfires rage on

Firefighters provide water to baby and mother Koala on Kangaroo Island
Firefighters provide water to baby and mother koalas on Kangaroo Island.

Dozens of Canadian firefighters are on their way to Australia to help the country battle wildfires that have left at least 29 people dead. 

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) says that 77 Canadians from across the country are headed down under in response to a request for help by national fire and emergency services in Melbourne. 

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The request for help is specifically for the states of Victoria and South Australia, according to a CIFFC statement tweeted Thursday.

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“This is in addition to the Canadian resources that have already been deployed to the State of New South Wales,” CIFFC said in the statement. 

The first contingent of Canadians that left in early December is back, they added.

CIFFC spokesperson Melanie Morin said these Canadian deployments, beginning from December, are the first time the agency has sent firefighting help to Australia.

This is the first time that we’ve gone anywhere internationally other than the United States,” she said in a phone interview from Melbourne on Thursday, where she is part of a team helping coordinate personnel. 

On Thursday, 28 fire management personnel were preparing to depart from Vancouver International Airport, bound for the state of Victoria, where at least half a dozen bushfires were listed on the government website along with clusters of grass fires. 

Their deployment is slated to last 31 days.

Australia softens climate change rhetoric as bushfires, voters rage
Australia softens climate change rhetoric as bushfires, voters rage

“They will be undertaking roles in command, operations, planning, logistics and aviation,” CIFFC said.

Seven more Canadian fire aviation specialists will depart for 31 days — marking the seventh such deployment from Canada — on Friday to South Australia, where fire danger ratings on the state website range from very high to low-moderate. 

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The fires have affected the availability of food and water for local wildlife. Local firefighters in South Australia recently posted a video of themselves helping a pair of parched koalas. Similar videos of people helping thirsty koalas have periodically appeared since the start of the wildfire season. The World Wildlife Fund in Australia said last week it estimates more than a billion animals may have been killed directly or indirectly due to the fires.

On Sunday, 40 professional wildland firefighters from Canada along with two fire management personnel will head to Victoria for 31 days. 

Morin said this is the first time CIFFC is sending frontline firefighters in response to a request by the state of Victoria.

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“So we are now sending 40 firefighters that will be leaving Sunday night and arriving Tuesday morning in Melbourne,” she said. Half of them are from B.C., while the other half hail from Quebec.

Whirlwind of smoke and ash caused by Australia bushfires forms in New South Wales
Whirlwind of smoke and ash caused by Australia bushfires forms in New South Wales

Australia may have a “different topography, different terrain, different climate” than in Canada, she said.

“But once you have that base knowledge, then it can be transferred and applied here,” Morin said.

The firefighters all come from agencies across the country — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon.

Much-needed rain falls in New South Wales’ bushfire-ravaged communities
Much-needed rain falls in New South Wales’ bushfire-ravaged communities

All in all, by the time the eighth deployment lands in Australia next week, Canada will have sent a total of 172 fire professionals since early December to three different states in Australia.

We have 46 from BC, two from the Yukon, 34 from Alberta, four from the Northwest Territories, 11 from Saskatchewan, eight from Manitoba, 28 from Ontario, 25 from Quebec, three from Newfoundland and Labrador, three from Nova Scotia and eight from Parks Canada,” Morin said.

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Canada has mutual aid agreements with not just Australia but also New Zealand, the U.S., Mexico and South Africa. It has received similar firefighting assistance in the past.

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“Canada has called on Australian support for firefighting personnel in 2015, 2017 and 2018 and we are proud to now reciprocate and assist them during this challenging fire season,” CIFFC said.

The wildfires in Australia have devastated more than 2,500 homes and ravaged an area roughly the size of a third of Germany since they first began raging in September.

With files by Reuters