From the Last Frontier to the Land Down Under

Alaskan tapped as liaison during firefighting efforts in Australia

After two days of travel from the northern hemisphere to the land down under, BLM Alaska Fire Service Associate Manager Kyle Cowan arrived in Sydney where he’ll be the  be a liaison for Americans mobilizing to help with an unprecedented and deadly early fire season in Australia.

Taking a red-eye flight Monday morning, Cowan arrived Wednesday to begin a month-long deployment where he will coordinate American involvement on fires burning in New South Wales. He’s working with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS), the lead fire combat agency for bush fires in the southeastern Australian state.

More than 1,750 Australian firefighters and support crews are already working to slow the spread of fire across the state, according to NSWRFS. It is anticipated that additional American resources, channeled through the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) in Boise, will trickle in through February as Australia’s already catastrophic fire season progresses.

This week, Americans and Canadians joined the effort. The NICC filled requests for fire management and air supervision positions by pulling personnel from U.S. federal ranks. Go to https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_documents/NR_USassistanceAUS_120519.pdf for the National Interagency Coordination Center release regarding the mobilization of U.S. firefighting personnel.

More BLM AFS personnel are signed up to help if needed as, much like what Alaska experienced this summer, hotter and drier than normal weather is forecasted for Australia’s summer season.  Fortunately, the weather patterns between Alaska and Australia are almost exact opposite as Alaska is dark and cold.

Australia’s first day of summer was Nov. 30, and already 7,300 bush and grass fires burned more than 4.9 million acres, 673 homes, 1,400 out buildings, and most importantly, six people have perished in connection with bush fires, according to the NSWRFS. As of Dec. 3, there were 111 active bush and grass fires across New South Wales with 51 not yet contained, the NSW fire service tweeted.

Firefighters lighting fire on edge of woods.
A strike team of firefighters from New Zealand conduct a burn operation on a fire in New South Wales using New South Wales Rural Fire Service equipment. The group of firefighters seemlessly jumped in and went to work after mobilizing to NSW recently. Photo by Eldon Alexander, BLM/U.S. liaison

The New South Wales fire service touts itself as the world’s largest volunteer fire service, covering 95 percent of the southern Australia state that is just under half the size of Alaska at 312,528 square miles. Like Alaska, the New South Wales is known for wilderness and natural wonders. Unlike Alaska, however, the population is approximately 8 million with more than 5 million people residing in the state capitol of Sydney, also the largest city in Australia.

Truck with firefighters on edge of forest on fire.
A strike team of firefighters from New Zealand conduct a burn operation on a fire in New South Wales using New South Wales Rural Fire Service equipment recently. Photo by Eldon Alexander, BLM/U.S. liaison

This is not the first time Americans and Aussies have worked together on fires. BLM AFS’s Mike Bradley, who was a smokejumper at the time, and other firefighters formed a crew that traveled to Australia in 2003.

Bradley said he worked with “great people and made some life-long friends” during one of the first American deployments to Oz as the country is sometimes known.

Branden Petersen and Mike Butteri were seasoned BLM AFS firefighters when they were part of a larger force to go Down Under in 2007.

Butteri, who now works as the strategic fire planner at the Alaska Division of Forestry, was first assigned as a situation unit leader in charge of writing incident action plans and distributing fire information. Some of the differences he noticed was Australia relies on a large volunteer force while the U.S. primarily deploys professional firefighting personnel.

“They don’t use crews as much in Australia,” Butteri said. “More strike teams and small engines and equipment.”

When that was over, Butteri’s group ended up doing a Smokey Bear presentation at a local school about wildland fire in America.

“Somehow we got some Smokey swag and the kids loved it,” Butteri said, proving that the American fire prevention mascot is internationally recognized. “My job was to tell them about the sometimes benefits of wildland fire, because I was the Alaska guy.”

Petersen, who is now the BLM AFS Tanana Zone fire management officer, was assigned to a group that cleared trails and roads in Victoria after fires were contained. His first assignment was on a fire adjacent to the ranch where the 1982 Australian Western “The Man From Snowy River” was filmed.

Petersen said his Aussie counterparts didn’t work the long days or two-week assignments that are typical in America. They also didn’t set up large camps and utilized nearby communities to feed and house firefighters.

“They like to poke fun at people who are uncomfortable with snakes and large aggressive kangaroos,” Petersen said. 

Butteri didn’t see any snakes, but said, “there were indeed giant spiders. There were also cute koala bears.”

Google map of southeastern Australia with fire icons.
This Google map shows where fires are burning in New South Wales where Canadian and American firefighting personnel traveled this week to help with the deadly fire season. An interactive version of the map can be found on the NSW Rural Fire Service website at https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/fire-information/fires-near-me

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For more information, contact BLM Alaska Fire Service Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen at eipsen@blm.gov or (907)388-2159.

About BLM Alaska Fire Service

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) located at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, provides wildland fire suppression services for over 244 million acres of Department of the Interior and Native Corporation Lands in Alaska. In addition, AFS has other statewide responsibilities that include: interpretation of fire management policy; oversight of the BLM Alaska Aviation program; fuels management projects; and operating and maintaining advanced communication and computer systems such as the Alaska Lightning Detection System. AFS also maintains a National Incident Support Cache with a $10 million inventory. The Alaska Fire Service provides wildland fire suppression services for America’s “Last Frontier” on an interagency basis with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Military in Alaska.

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