Canadian Fire Crews Are Now Fighting the Australia Fires, Returning a Favour

Climate change means emergency responders need specialized, updated training according to wildfire expert.
January 7, 2020, 4:36pm
Canada sends firefighters to help battle historic bush fires in Australia
Firefighter in Upwey, Australia. Photo by D. Clarke Photography via Getty.

Cheers greeted Canadian firefighters as they arrived at Sydney’s international airport Tuesday. They’re helping exhausted Australian crews battle an unprecedented threat, super-charged blazes that have been raging for months. Canada has sent a total of nearly 100 fire experts to lend a hand.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), eight specialists left for Victoria Monday night and another 21 arrived in New South Wales—the area hardest-hit—this weekend. Each round of deployments ranges from 31 to 38 days. A total of 95 Canadians are scheduled to help crews in Australia’s Rural Fire Service, which are mostly volunteers who have been stretched by bush fires fuelled by the country’s longest and driest year ever recorded.

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry spokesperson Adrienne South said in an email, “This is the first time a multi-province Canadian crew is going to Australia.”

Even though Canada hasn’t dealt with bushfires as deadly as Australia’s, Canadian wildfire experts say our experience is valuable for fighting the fires now, and also for dealing with the aftermath.

Twenty-five people have been killed as well as an estimated 480 million animals. Millions of acres have been destroyed in fires that have been raging since September and their summer has only just begun. The Insurance Council of Australia estimated that insurance claims have already reached $485 million.

According to wildfire researcher Mike Flannigan, the types of blazes they’ll be dealing with are similar to very large, high-intensity fires that Canadians have seen recently, and more frequently, in British Columbia and Alberta. “These are erratic, hard to predict and dangerous. It has climate change fingerprints all over it,” said Flannigan.

The 2016 blaze in Fort McMurray, Alberta, brought an estimated $9 billion in damages and was the costliest disaster in Canadian history. The historic wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018 in British Columbia also saw large-scale devastation, which Australian crews helped battle. The two countries have a history of helping each other out and it helps that we have opposite seasons, though fire seasons in both countries have gotten longer in recent years.

The specialists from Canada won’t be frontline firefighters—Australia hasn’t asked us to send those, at least not yet. We’ve sent managers and people behind the scenes in charge of logistics, strategy, and tracking equipment and planes. There’s a lot more to fire response than putting out blazes and Canadian expertise can play an important role in dealing with the humans and the trauma that come with this kind of extreme destruction.

Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), lived through 2014’s “Summer of Smoke,” the worst wildfire season on record in the Northwest Territories.

Yellowknife wasn’t evacuated, but residents had to stay indoors most of the time because of poor air quality. She authored a study on what needs to be done to help communities be more prepared for major fire events that last weeks or months, not days. Recommendations include having well-ventilated community centres for people to gather, for free, on days when they’re not allowed to engage in physical activities outside. Howard says cabin fever, isolation, and lack of exercise really take a toll. Proactively seeking out vulnerable people including the elderly, and setting them up with portable air filtration systems in their homes goes a long way.

According to Howard, doctors and hospital staff need updated training on how to deal with major fire events. There are regions in Australia that may not be in the direct line of the fires, but whose residents will be affected by smoke for months.

Howard works with Coda, a group of international medical experts based out of Australia, that helps medics improve health outcomes related to the climate emergency. She's also working with others to develop a “tool kit to help people dealing with eco-anxiety,” which can be triggered by life-changing events such as major wildfires. She says the standard treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t comprehensive enough—depression and addiction issues that arise weeks and months after the fires have been put out require specific treatment.

She says there isn’t enough research and strategies for helping people with milder cases as well. Those who see what is happening and are fearful for the future and other climate change-related extreme weather.

Howard points to a report on Canada’s medical curriculum that is coming out Thursday that highlights the need to update what medical students are learning in school in light of the new realities of global warming and climate change.

“Every summer we hear people say ‘this is the new normal.’ No, we are not at the new normal. We’re definitely still on a trend that is going to get worse,” she said.

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