As wildfires rage in Australia, firefighters from Southwest Colorado are stepping up to help.
Since fire season began in Australia in late July, the country has been ravaged by the worst wildfires in decades.
Years of drought, unseasonably high temperatures and strong winds have set the stage for unprecedented fires, which to date have killed 28 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. Most recent estimates say about 17.9 million acres have burned, about the size of South Carolina.
In Australia, nearly all of the country’s firefighters in what’s called the Rural Fire Service are volunteers, making it the world’s largest volunteer firefighting force.
For years, Australian volunteers have helped fight blazes in the U.S. The Washington Post reported that more than 130 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand helped battle blazes in California in 2018.
It appears this time around, the U.S. is returning the favor. Since last year, more than 150 U.S. fire personnel have joined in the fight against Australia’s fires, and that includes emergency responders from Southwest Colorado.
Mike Bryson, a Durango resident who has been a firefighter with the San Juan National Forest for 22 seasons, said he was deployed abroad for the first time in his career Dec. 5.
“I figured it would be an opportunity to help, and reciprocate as well,” Bryson said Tuesday after returning home to Durango. “This is an unprecedented year for them. By the time we got there, they had been working three months straight with no release in sight.”
Bryson and other U.S. fire personnel arrived in Sydney, where they stayed for two days to acclimate from the jet lag. Then, he was sent about three hours west to a little town called Mudgee near the Blue Mountains, one of the worst areas hit by wildfire.
“This was probably the worst fire behavior I’ve ever seen,” he said. “There’s just so much of the landscape on fire at one time, just miles and miles of open line.”
Bryson was part of a helitack crew that fought the fire from the air. What’s striking so many fire experts is how all the factors – extreme drought, hot temperatures, shifting winds – is creating one of the most destructive fires in recent memory.
Another challenge, Bryson said, is the amount of resources available to fight the blaze.
For the 416 Fire (which Bryson fought), about 1,500 people battled the 54,000-acre fire. In the half million-acre area near Australia’s Blue Mountains where Bryson was stationed, there were only about 100 people on hand.
“There are not enough resources to come up with a solid plan to combat the fire,” he said. “So we were in reactive mode.”
Tracy Milakovic, a Cortez resident who is an assistant fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest, told 9News she landed in Australia in early January.
“(Fires) seem to be a bit bigger out here than they are back out in Colorado,” she said. “The fuel type is different. They have different trees and shrubs and grasses than we do out there, so things are just going to burn a little bit differently.”
Vanessa Lacayo, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said Milakovic and two other personnel from the San Juan National Forest are in Australia. U.S. personnel volunteer to help out but are still paid by the Forest Service for their time.
“Our support is anticipated to continue for several more weeks as the situation intensifies and Australia continues to send requests for fire support,” she said.
Bryson said it’s likely going to take a major rain event to put out the fire, but when that will happen is anyone’s guess. He did say, however, the fire is mostly burning at a moderate intensity, which means the blaze ultimately might be doing good for the habitat once it regenerates.
“A lot of that fire is doing good and their ecosystem is more resilient compared to ours,” he said.