University of Alaska, Fairbanks, firefighting students Casey Lasota, left, and Harold Stein work to cool hotspots left from a wildfire Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015, in Chelan, Wash. Firefighters across the West saw little relief over the weekend as wildfires raged in the drought-stricken region, but for those in Washington, other states will soon provide additional resources. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Australian firefighters "happy to help" in Northwest
August 27, 2015
The mountainous conditions in the Pacific Northwest will be nothing new for dozens of firefighters. They are from Australia and New Zealand. They have arrived to help fight the many fires in the area.
"We are used to tall timber. And steep territory," said Warren Heslip. He is a 47-year-old firefighter. He lives in Southland, New Zealand.
Heslip was among the 71 firefighters from the southern region who came to help. They picked up equipment at the National Interagency Fire Center. It is in Boise, Idaho. Then they headed out to help a ground movement led by firefighters from across the West. The firefighters were helped by U.S. soldiers.
The flames already have claimed the lives of three firefighters in Washington. Four others have been injured. About 200 homes have burned. Fighting those fires has inspired an outpouring of volunteers. They were invited for the first time in Washington state history to help battle the blazes.
This summer's fire response across the West has been overcome by harsh blazes. The fires have torn through the tinder-dry region.
The biggest fire as of Aug. 24 was in Washington's Okanogan County. The county is on the Canadian border. A group of five fires raging out of control became the largest in state history. The fires burned more than 400 square miles. That is according to spokesman Rick Isaacson.
Lightning-sparked fires broke the state record. They topped the blazes that destroyed more than 300 homes in the same county last year.
"I would like to set some different records," Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.
The U.S. is in the middle of one of its worst fire seasons on record. Some 11,600 square miles have burned. It is only the sixth-worst going back to 1960. But it is the most land burned by this date in 10 years. So the ranking is sure to rise.
So many fires are burning in Washington that managers are taking great measures. They asked for help from overseas. And 200 U.S. troops were sent from a base in Tacoma. It was the first such use of active-duty soldiers in nine years.
Jim Whittington is a Bureau of Land Management spokesman in Portland, Oregon. He said military assets cannot be used against wildfires. That is until all civilian resources are sent out.
Active duty military workers have been mobilized to serve as wild land firefighters a total of 35 times. That is since 1987. The last time was in 2006.
It has not been necessary to ask for military assistance since 2006. That is according to Forest Service officials.
Nearly 4,000 volunteers also answered the state's call for help. It was far more than will be accepted. That was according to state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smillie.
The state is looking for former firefighters or heavy equipment operators. The hope is that they can bulldoze fire lines. That would hold the blazes. It would keep them from spreading in mountainous, timber-covered areas. About 200 people have been cleared to work so far.
The dozens of firefighters from Australia and New Zealand were being outfitted to fill a serious shortage of mid-level fire managers. Those include equipment bosses. They include strike team leaders. And they include supervisors.
The Southern Hemisphere nations have been partners with the U.S. for more than 50 years. Australia and New Zealand are able to lend firefighters because the harshest parts of their fire seasons occur at opposite times of the year. The last time the U.S. asked for their help was 2008. Fifty firefighters arrived. The U.S. sent firefighters abroad in 2007.
Costs for the international firefighters will be paid by the agency they are assigned to. That is what officials said. No cost estimate was yet available.
Chris Arnol is an international liaison. He represents the Australia and New Zealand firefighters. In Boise, he said that the firefighters were ready to help.
"We understand how tough it is for you guys. And we are happy to help," he said.
Simon Martin is a 40-year-old firefighter from Collie, Australia. He agreed.
"I am sure there are a lot of tired firefighters out there," he said.
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are firefighters coming from as far as New Zealand to fight these fires?
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